A top Janjaweed leader says the Sudan government backed and directed militia activities in northern Darfur, according to a videotape released by Human Rights Watch today.

Hilal states that the government of Sudan directed all military activities of the militia forces he had recruited. "All of the people in the field are led by top army commanders," he told Human Rights Watch on videotape. "...These people get their orders from the Western command center, and from Khartoum."

"Musa Hilal squarely contradicts the government's claim that it has ‘no relationship' with local militias," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Africa division.

The Sudan government has said that any atrocities in Darfur are the fault of Janjaweed "bandits" and are the result of recurring ethnic clashes in Darfur in which the government is "neutral."

"We now see that the two parties responsible for crimes against humanity in Darfur are pointing the finger at each other," said Takirambudde. "Musa Hilal is a dangerous man for the Sudanese government. His testimony could be very interesting to the International Criminal Court."

Although many eyewitnesses have named Musa Hilal as a leader of militia forces responsible for some of the most brutal attacks in Darfur, in the videotape he denies any leadership role and says his followers have not committed atrocities.

However, several eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described how Musa Hilal came to the central market in Kebkabiya in North Darfur twice in January 2004 with his forces, and addressed the crowds about his militia forces' great ‘victories' in outlying areas against the rebel forces. The eyewitnesses said that Musa Hilal was not only uniformed and armed, but also claimed to have led his followers to these military victories.

Musa Hilal's forces were initially recruited from among his tribesmen in North Darfur, and have been active for several years around the Kebkabiya area, where Human Rights Watch conducted research in October 2004.

Many witnesses in Kebkabiya told Human Rights Watch about the location and activities of Musa Hilal's forces. They reported that Misteriya town is the location of Hilal's militia camp near Kebkabiya, where he and Hassim Mangari of the Sudan army are commanders. Musa Hilal is known for taking women prisoners and holding them at Jebel Jur (meaning "hunger mountain") west of Misteriya. Many of the women have not returned to date.

Some witnesses spoke of militia members who committed atrocities in the name of Musa Hilal. Others said that their former Arab neighbors and Janjaweed militia prevented them from returning to their fertile farming land outside Kebkabiya: one group of women trying to return in Merguba, outside of Kebkabiya and two and a half hours from Misteriya by donkey, were told by their former Arab neighbors, ‘This [Merguba] is the land of Musa Hilal. You must not go and take anything from there.'

Darfur government documents in the possession of Human Rights Watch refer to official Sudanese government support for Musa Hilal. In a memo dated February 13, 2004 from the office of a sub-locality in North Darfur, the authorities urge all "security units in the locality" to "allow the activities of the mujahedeen and the volunteers under the command of Sheikh Musa Hilal to proceed in the areas of [North Darfur] and to secure their vital needs."

The memo continues, "We also highlight the importance of non-interference so as not to question their authorities and to overlook minor offences by the mujahedeen against civilians who are suspected members of the rebellion...."

Human Rights Watch researchers conducted the video interview with Musa Hilal on September 27, 2004 in Khartoum. Since then, he has largely refrained from giving interviews to the media.

Click here for the transcript of the Human Rights Watch interview with Musa Hilal.

Click here for the exact English translation of excerpts from Human Rights Watch's interview with Musa Hilal.