(New York) - Sudanese government forces have carried out a series of attacks on civilians since August 2010 in Jebel Marra, the mountainous rebel stronghold in central Darfur, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should halt the attacks and allow access for the United Nations and humanitarian organizations to civilians in all areas, Human Rights Watch said.
Credible accounts from witnesses to the attacks indicate that Sudanese government forces committed serious laws-of-war violations during attacks in August, September, and October on populated areas around Deribat, Jawa, and Soni in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur. The attacks resulted in civilian deaths and injuries, mass displacement, and destruction of property. In the first week of November, government forces continued the attacks, targeting villages to the south of Soni, causing further destruction and displacement.
"The Sudanese government should not get away with attacking Darfur civilians again because everyone is paying attention to the referendum in the south," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to end these attacks immediately and let humanitarian agencies reach civilians who need the help, including people in rebel-held territories."
The areas attacked by government forces have been under the general control of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) rebel faction led by Abdel Wahid el-Nur. SLA rebels have used Jebel Marra as a base throughout the Darfur conflict.
Denying aid to certain civilian populations because of their ethnic or political affiliation could amount to a war crime, Human Rights Watch said.
On September 30, government Antonov airplanes and helicopters dropped bombs and rockets on the town of Jawa, setting fire to the market and killing six civilians, including the imam of the mosque and a woman and her two sons, one a six-month-old baby, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The same day, government soldiers and militias entered the town and surrounding villages and looted civilian properties.
Witnesses also reported that government soldiers arrested five farmers from Jawa, including elderly men and men with mental disabilities, and detained them for two weeks at military bases. The soldiers beat the men severely, demanding information about rebel positions in Jebel Marra.
In the first week of October, government forces bombed numerous villages on the road from Deribat to Soni, and a cluster of villages south of Soni, including Feina, destroying hundreds of homes, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Government troops in the area have prevented civilians from returning to their farms. On October 25, government soldiers stationed in Soni allegedly killed a woman while she was returning to her farm near Soni with her two daughters.
The attacks, which continue to date, caused tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes, mostly to scattered settlements in rebel-controlled areas that the government has made off-limits to UN and humanitarian organizations. Sources on the ground told Human Rights Watch that the health conditions of displaced populations are deteriorating. The total number of casualties in the recent attacks is not known.
The Sudanese government has repeatedly blocked the African Union/United Nations Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) from visiting the affected areas, despite the government's agreement to allow the mission unfettered access throughout Darfur. The army maintains checkpoints at all main entrances to the mountainous area and has refused UN and humanitarian organizations passage to rebel-controlled parts of the mountain where civilians are clustered.
One witness to the attacks on Jawa and Soni told Human Rights Watch: "The government of South Darfur is telling us that if we want any assistance we have to come down the mountain to the areas controlled by the government forces."
International humanitarian law applicable to the Sudanese government and rebel forces prohibits attacks directed at civilians and indiscriminate attacks. All parties to the armed conflict in Darfur have an obligation to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief to civilians, no matter where they live.
The surge in fighting casts doubt on the government's new Darfur strategy, officially announced in September, for accelerating returns of displaced persons to their home villages. The plan does not include safeguards to ensure the right of displaced persons under international law to return voluntarily.
"It is obviously too early to focus on sending people back to their villages when fighting is still going on," Peligal said. "The Sudanese government needs to stop attacking civilians and make sure it meets requirements for treatment of displaced people based on international humanitarian principles."
Human Rights Watch urged governments and intergovernmental bodies engaged in Sudan to press for accountability for human rights violations in Darfur. Although the government announced it would investigate an earlier attack by government-allied forces, on September 2 at Tabarat market in North Darfur, it has yet to prosecute any of those responsible. The Sudanese government has also refused to cooperate with the International Criminal Court, which has issued arrest warrants for three Sudanese officials, including President Omar al-Bashir, for atrocities committed in Darfur.
The attacks on civilian populations in eastern Jebel Marra are part of an overall increase in violence in Darfur in 2010, which included clashes between rebel groups and armed ethnic groups and other violence.
Attacks by government forces in eastern Jebel Marra began in February. The recent attacks, which began in August before the harvest, are part of a second wave of operations against SLA rebels loyal to Abdel Wahid el-Nur. The government's operations in Jebel Marra coincide with the September 2 attack by government-supported militia on the market town of Tabarat, in the foothills of Jebel Marra in North Darfur, which killed at least 37 people, injured scores more, and displaced thousands.