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(Nairobi) – A Sudanese commander wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) led or participated in deadly attacks on ethnic Salamat communities in Central Darfur during April 2013, Human Rights Watch said today. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the attackers appeared to include government forces using government weapons and equipment.

Ali Kosheib, a former militia leader now in a high-ranking post with the auxiliary Central Reserve Police, faces a 2007 arrest warrant by the ICC for crimes against humanity and war crimes in West Darfur in 2003 and 2004. Although Sudanese authorities detained Kosheib, a nom de guerre for Ali Mohammed Ali, in 2007 on unrelated charges and again in 2008, they released him for lack of evidence.

The United Nations Security Council is to be briefed by the ICC prosecutor on June 5. The Security Council should call on Sudan to surrender Kosheib to the ICC immediately, Human Rights Watch said.

“Witnesses place Ali Kosheib at the scene of recent killing, burning, and looting in Darfur,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This shows that allowing fugitives to remain at liberty can have a devastating price.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 30 people, including refugees who fled the fighting, at the Chadian border in May.

Since early April, heavily armed members of the Misseriya and Ta’isha ethnic groups have conducted attacks on ethnic Salamat communities in and around Um Dukhun, Central Darfur. These attacks have killed more than 100 civilians, injured scores more, burned and destroyed property, and displaced tens of thousands of people. The fighting has since spread to South Darfur and has caused additional civilian deaths and destruction, which Human Rights Watch has not been able to document.

Witnesses placed Kosheib at the scene of an attack on the town of Abu Jeradil, 30 kilometers south of Um Dukhun, on April 8, riding in a government vehicle. They told Human Rights Watch that large numbers of heavily armed men, most wearing khaki uniforms, arrived in two phases, first on foot and then in vehicles. They shot indiscriminately, burned homes and shops, stole livestock, and looted goods.

“The [attackers] were shooting at shops and people,” an elderly man from Abu Jeradil told Human Rights Watch. “We saw houses and fields on fire as we fled.”

A 35-year-old woman who also fled said she returned the next day and found dead bodies: “Five in one place, four in another place, two women shot as they ran.”

Salamat men told Human Rights Watch they fought back using rifles but were far outnumbered and outgunned by the attackers, whom they identified as members of the Central Reserve Police, Border Intelligence, and militia. They said the attackers drove in a convoy of government land cruisers and were armed with rockets, anti-aircraft weapons, rocket propelled grenades, and other weapons. Human Rights Watch could not independently verify these descriptions.

As a result of the recent fighting and attacks, tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee the area, Human Rights Watch said. More than 30,000 refugees, mostly women and children, crossed into Chad, where they are living in dire conditions amid the onset of the rainy season. Although most are of Salamat ethnicity, non-Arab ethnic groups such as Masalit, Kajaksa, Fur, Dajo, and Tama also fled the fighting. 

One Tama woman from Abu Jeradil told Human Rights Watch: “They didn’t see any difference between communities, they just wanted people to leave. They stole our cows and burned our crops and took our clothes from our house and burned the house down. We saw them.”

Government Response
Sudan’s government has repeatedly downplayed its responsibility for the violence in Darfur, saying it does not have the capacity to control inter-ethnic fighting. Inter-ethnic conflict over land and other resources has intensified in 2013, displacing more than 170,000 people in Darfur and Chad, according to UN estimates.

By all accounts the cause of the Um Dukhun area fighting is a land dispute between the Salamat and Ta’isha ethnic groups. However, Human Rights Watch research found that the government allowed state security forces and equipment to take part in the attacks and took no steps to protect civilians from the fighting.

The reason for the government’s support for one side in the fighting is not clear. Observers consulted by Human Rights Watch suggest that Sudanese leaders wanted to appease ethnic Misseriya and Ta’isha men who fought in pro-government “Janjaweed” militia forces during the the Darfur conflict in the mid-2000s, and consider the Salamat to be Chadian nationals.

Some people who fled the attacks told Human Right Watch the attackers had accused them of being “tora bora” or rebels against the government, suggesting another possible motivation for the attacks. Yet members of all ethnic groups involved in the fighting have reportedly joined various Sudanese rebel groups.

“The evident role of security forces in the Um Dukhun attacks indicates that serious crimes were committed with government knowledge,” Bekele said. “The authorities should fully investigate these crimes and hold all those responsible to account.”

Failure to Protect
Neither Sudan’s regular armed forces nor the African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force, UNAMID intervened to protect civilians from the April attacks in Darfur. While a few dozen Sudanese Armed Forces soldiers at Abu Jeradil remained in their barracks and provided protection to some civilians, many police and other security forces fled.

After the fighting began, Sudanese military officials sealed the area. They instructed  the “forces mixtes,” the tri-partite force established by Sudan, Chad, and Central African Republic to monitor their shared border, to steer clear of the fighting, saying it was an internal matter, Chadian members of the force told Human Rights Watch.

Sudanese authorities also kept UNAMID from the area. They twice denied access on security grounds, then allowed one inter-agency visit to the town of Um Dukhun in late April but not to other affected areas or to the insecure border zone. The government’s refusal to allow UNAMID patrols also suggests government complicity in the attacks on civilians, Human Rights Watch said.

A large area currently remains insecure, with armed men from the attacking groups roaming freely, displaced villagers told Human Rights Watch. They said they feared returning to their villages to collect food or other belongings because of the presence of armed Misseriya in the border zone. Some of those who returned reported incidents of harassment, armed robberies, and sexual violence.

A woman from the village of Sawawih told Human Rights Watch that when she returned to her village weeks after the attack she found all the houses burned down and animals stolen. Armed men intercepted her group and detained them for two hours. “They ordered us to sit and pointed guns at us and asked, what is our tribe? Where are the men and why are they hiding in fear?”

The UN Security Council should condemn the attacks on civilians and request a report on these incidents from UNAMID, Human Rights Watch said. The council should remind the Sudanese government of its responsibility to protect its population and make clear that failure to surrender Kosheib to the ICC or prevent UNAMID troops from carrying out their mandate to protect civilians would result in individual sanctions.

“The Sudanese government’s claim that it cannot protect civilians from inter-ethnic fighting rings hollow when it denies access to peacekeepers who could help,” Bekele said. “Preventing the peacekeeping mission from carrying out its mandate only gives the impression Sudan is condoning the unlawful attacks.”

A root cause of the fighting is a longstanding land dispute between the ethnic Arab Salamat and Ta’isha groups. The Salamat, who are also present in Chad, lived for decades under Ta’isha administration in South Darfur but in recent years sought their own native administration and the power to govern a specific area. Salamat leaders claim the former governor of West Darfur granted them a native administration, or nazirate, in 2010 with headquarters in Abu Jeradil.

Tensions between the two groups increased when the government created the state of Central Darfur in 2012, a move that appeared to consolidate Salamat power.

In late January, Kosheib, who is part Ta’isha, gave an incendiary speech at a market in South Darfur, accompanied by local government officials and ethnic leaders, stating that he was not just a Central Reserve Police commander but also a “Janjaweed” commander able to defend Ta’isha land, and calling on Ta’isha fighters to protect their land. The Central Reserve Police, known locally as “Abu Tira,” absorbed many former pro-government militias that have been implicated in abuses.

Salamat relations with neighboring Misseriya Arabs sharply deteriorated in early 2013 with a series of armed robberies of Salamat youth by alleged Misseriya. The Ta’isha and Misseriya joined forces and attacked dozens of Salamat towns and villages starting on April 5 at Biltebe. UN agencies estimate that attackers burned property in 24 villages.

The UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC in 2005. The court has issued arrest warrants for three Sudanese suspects in addition to Kosheib, all of whom are fugitives: President Omar al-Bashir; Ahmed Haroun, governor of Southern Kordofan state, and Abdulraheem Mohammed Hussein, the defense minister. In 2010, the ICC issued a formal finding of non-cooperation by the Sudanese government in the cases of Haroun and Kosheib, which was sent to the Security Council.

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