On May 10, 2008 the Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), launched an armed attack on Omdurman, one of the three towns that form greater Khartoum. This was first time that a rebel group has engaged government forces near the capital, marking an escalation in the Darfur conflict, which has raged for more than five years.
The JEM attack did not happen without warning. JEM and government forces clashed in North Kurdofan in western Sudan on May 8 and 9,1 and on May 9 Sudanese authorities issued statements in Sudanese newspapers that JEM forces were preparing to launch attacks on Khartoum.2 The National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) and police forces set up roadblocks on May 8 and 9 to search vehicles for arms in the capital and elsewhere, including in North Kurdofan, and began to arrest those with known or suspected links to JEM on May 8.3 On May 9 authorities in Khartoum issued a warning to the United Nations Mission to Sudan (UNMIS), UN agencies and international nongovernmental organizations of an impending attack.
On May 10 around 2 p.m. some 1,000 JEM fighters reached Omdurman in a column of about 130 vehicles. JEM forces entered Omdurman from the north through Wadi Seidna military base and from the west. According to local residents, artillery fire could be heard west of Omdurman at around 4 p.m. The main JEM targets appeared to be Arbaeen Road (near the Omdurman military base) and Al-Awsat police station, in the towns center, where JEM stole police vehicles. JEM forces engaged with government forces in several districts including the main market of Souq Libya (Libya market) and residential areas of Umbada, Al-Thoura and Al-Muhandiseen.
Government forces immediately deployed troops, backed up by tanks and helicopter gunships, to Omdurman. Heavy fighting continued for several hours including in the markets of Al-Souq Al-Shabi (Popular market) and Souq Libya in Omdurman. At around 5 p.m. some of the JEM forces started to move towards Al Ingaz Bridge to cross the White Nile from Omdurman to Khartoum in an apparent bid to take over the presidential palace. Another JEM force headed towards the National Radio and Television building in Omdurman. Both attempts were repelled by government forces. Sporadic fighting continued for the next 48 hours spreading to Khartoums Al-Souq Al-Arabi (Arabic market), Al-Gabat district and Al-Huria Street in central Khartoum.
According to government statements some of the rebels infiltrated the capital and entered residential area wearing civilian clothes. In state television announcement they called on local residents to call a special hotline if they see anyone suspicious in their area.4 A reward of US$125,000 was also announced in state television asking the public to call a special hotline for information leading to the JEM leaders capture, which was later doubled to US$250,000.5 Almost immediately after the attack, mass arrests started to take place across the city, including of members of the JEM forces.
The fighting in Khartoum rose to the level of a non-international armed conflict under international humanitarian law (the laws of war). The laws of war do not prohibit military forces from fighting in urban areas, but parties to a conflict are required to take all feasible steps to minimize harm to civilians. Prohibited attacks are those which target civilians, which are indiscriminate, or which would cause civilian harm disproportionate to the military gain. Although members of rebel forces that engage in armed attacks against government military forces are not necessarily acting in violation of the laws of war, they may still be prosecuted for violations of local law.
Following the first attack on May 10 Sudanese authorities issued a citywide curfew from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. the next morning, which was later extended to 10 a.m. The curfew remained in place in Omdurman until Monday, May 12.
State television showed a number of bodies scattered in the streets, as well as interviews with captured combatants who appeared to have been beaten, including children.6 Some property was damaged during the attack including a factory and some residential buildings. Reports from eyewitnesses suggest that more than 60 civilians were killed during the fighting.
In the immediate aftermath of the fighting, the authorities sought to capture remaining JEM fighters, which at times led to the unnecessary and random use of lethal police force. A 21-year-old casual worker told Human Rights Watch how he was injured by police on May 11:
Situation in Darfur
After more than five years of fighting, Darfur remains plagued by conflict. The attack by JEM on Khartoum follows major offensives by rebel and government forces in West Darfur States northern corridor and Jebel Mun8 in February 2008, and ongoing conflict in the wider Darfur region.
In December 2007 and January 2008, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel group launched a major military offensive in West Darfurs northern corridor, and claimed to have surrounded the provincial capital Al Geneina. In early February, an attempted coup in Chad further exacerbated the conflict between the Sudanese government and JEM. Sudan and Chad have long accused one another of fomenting rebellion through support for each others insurgents. The Sudanese government supported Chadian rebels in an attempted coup in the Chadian capital NDjamena on February 2-3, 2008, while Sudanese JEM rebels, many with family and ethnic links to Chad, reportedly helped the Chadian government to repel it. In the wake of the failed coup attempt, in February 2008 the Sudanese government launched a large-scale military campaign to retake the northern corridor and Jebel Mun in a series of attacks in which more than 120 civilians were killed.9
The Sudanese government has continued its aerial bombardment campaign in Darfur, and clashes between government forces and JEM continued, culminating in JEMs May attack on the capital.
There was unanimous international condemnation of the attack by JEM with many highlighting the negative implications the attack will have on the situation in Darfur in addition to undermining international efforts to bring a resolution to the conflict. On May 11, the African Union issued a statement condemning the attack and calling on all parties to desist from using force. On May 13 the United Nation Security Council strongly condemned the attack by JEM against the Sudanese capital, but warned Khartoum not to retaliate against civilians. Similar responses were echoed by other regional bodies and governments such as the US and the EU. However, beyond condemnation of the attack, the international communitys response to the Sudanese governments crackdown has been subdued at best.
1 Human Rights Watch confidential interview, May 17, 2008.
Opheera McDoom, Darfur rebels, Sudanese army clash near Khartoum, Reuters, May 10, 2008, http://in.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idINIndia-33511520080510?pageNumber=2&virtualBrandChannel=0&sp=true, (accessed June 15, 2008).
3 Human Rights Watch confidential interview, May 27, 2008.
4 Sudanese gov't announces crush of Darfur rebel infiltration into capital, Xinhua, May 10, 2008, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-05/11/content_8143528.htm, (accessed May 12, 2008).
Khartoum pursues Khalil Inbrahim and rights criticism of arrests, Al Jazeera net, May 13, 2008,
http://aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/6E82CD07-EA12-461F-A5DE-821C217FFFD0.htm, (accessed June 6, 2008).
7 Human Rights Watch confidential interview, May 21, 2008.
8 Jebel Mun, a mountainous area about 80 kilometres northeast of the provincial capital Al Geneina, has been a stronghold for Darfurs rebels since early in the conflict. The northern corridor covers the area between Al Ginena and Jabel Mun.
9 Human Rights Watch, Darfur They Shot at Us as We Fled: Government Attacks on Civilians in West Darfur in February 2008, April, 2008, p. 10- 13,