Darfur conflict takes unexpected turn

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 12, 2007 

NERTITI, Sudan — As far as Osman Ahmed could tell, the clashes that forced his family out of their home and into a dismal refugee camp last month were no different from the attacks that have devastated Darfur for four years and counting.

"The village was totally burned and looted. It was the janjaweed," said Ahmed, a tired-looking man in a long white gown, invoking the name of the government-sponsored Arab militias responsible for most of the recent carnage in western Sudan.

But Ahmed, who fled immediately with his family to safety in Nertiti, about seven miles away, wasn't around to see what happened the following day. Darfur rebels retaliated by striking a nearby government security station, and their allies in the attack were also Arab janjaweed.

The account of the clashes around Songa village on June 9 and 10, given by African Union peacekeepers manning a small mountain outpost here in central Darfur, illustrates part of an increasingly upside-down security picture in Darfur. With some janjaweed now fighting alongside rebels they once tried to kill - and with the rebels riven by disputes and attacking peacekeepers and aid workers - this is hardly the same conflict of four years ago.

As desperate as life has become in Darfur, the new complications could make things worse.

At least 200,000 people - and perhaps as many as 400,000 - have been killed in Darfur since 2003, when Sudan's Arab-led government armed janjaweed to quell an uprising by non-Arab tribes demanding more political autonomy. The government's proxy war - labeled by the Bush administration as genocide - has emptied Darfur's Texas-sized countryside into refugee camps and unleashed what aid workers describe as the world's biggest humanitarian crisis.

Now there's a new set of problems: Few people know who's attacking or why. Armed groups are breaking off and recombining according to the tactical advantage that day. Aid agencies and peacekeepers are at greater risk than ever.

"One of the problems with the security situation at this point - it is not two sides fighting against each other," Andrew Natsios, President Bush's special envoy to Sudan, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April. "It's anarchy."

The U.N. said that since the start of the year, 140,000 more people have fled their homes, pushing the number of people displaced in Darfur past 2.2 million, a new high. Another 236,000 are refugees in neighboring Chad.

Analysts say the reordering of the war has greatly complicated diplomatic efforts to rescue a moribund peace agreement signed 14 months ago by Sudan's government and one rebel faction. The accord - negotiated by then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and other high-powered diplomats - was rejected by two rival rebel groups because it offered too little compensation to war victims and few guarantees of political power.

Sudan's government has failed to implement its end of the peace deal, which requires it to disarm the janjaweed. Instead, the government continues to arm multiple groups, according to U.N., African Union and academic experts. A U.N. report in April documented extensive air shipments of heavy weaponry into Darfur by the government, in violation of an arms embargo.

But the biggest obstacle to peace - and the gravest threat to Darfur's people - is the rebels themselves, who have split from three groups into as many as 16. Few articulate any clear political demands, but their young, undisciplined fighters increasingly act as bandits, targeting Darfur's 12,500 aid workers and 7,000 African Union peacekeepers.

Now, analysts say coaxing the rebels back to the negotiating table is a major challenge.

The biggest task for international mediators is to reunite the rebel movements, said David Mozersky, a Sudan expert with the International Crisis Group think tank. "The rebels have definitely complicated things. But it's not impossible."

That may be an optimistic reading. Various rebel groups have been blamed for assaults this year that have left nine peacekeepers dead and for hijacking more than 70 vehicles from the African Union and aid agencies - mostly new SUVs outfitted with expensive communications systems. Aid workers say they cannot reach about one-quarter of displaced people - more than a half million people - due to the threat of carjacking and kidnapping in rebel-controlled areas.

"The various armed groups are using the international community as a resource to equip themselves," said Simon Crittle, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program in Khartoum, the capital.

"Now it just seems like everyone's got a gun and everyone is dangerous. It's terrifying for the (humanitarian) staff."

In mid-June, the aid agency Oxfam announced it was ending operations in Darfur's largest camp, Gereida, which shelters 130,000 people. The decision came after armed men raided compounds belonging to Oxfam and another agency in December, stole 12 cars, raped one aid worker and subjected others to mock executions.

Oxfam officials blamed the rebel group controlling the area - the faction of the Sudan Liberation Army led by Minni Minnawi of the minority Zaghawa tribe, the only rebel leader to sign the peace deal - for not improving security since the attack, and some suspected Minnawi's people were responsible.

Over the past year, the SLA has devolved from two rival groups - one led by Minnawi, the other by Abdol Wahid al Nur of the larger Fur tribe - into at least a half-dozen. Jamal Arbab, a commander with a splinter group calling itself "SLA-Free Will," which claims to have 3,500 fighters scattered throughout Darfur, said commanders have lost control of their forces, who now see thievery as an end in itself.

"The fighters are poor. Their leaders promised that the (peace agreement) would bring them compensation," Arbab said. "They expected it would change things, and nothing has happened."

Diplomats acknowledged that they stumbled after the peace accord, missing opportunities to win over other rebel groups. Experts said that U.S. engagement foundered when Zoellick left the State Department a few months later, briefly leaving the Bush administration without a point person for Darfur.

"The international community didn't work hard enough," said Rabbie Abdel Atti, a Sudanese government spokesman. "Now the problem isn't between the government and the armed factions. The problem is between the armed factions themselves. But I think if the rebels consolidate their opinion, it will be very easy for the government to sit with them."

But the government's position is far from secure. President Omar al Bashir is under increasing pressure, including from ally China, to allow U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur to relieve a small and overwhelmed African Union mission. Bashir finally agreed last month to a 20,000-strong U.N. force, although it could be at least a year before the force arrives.

The fact that some janjaweed are switching sides further complicates matters for the government, say analysts. Angry at not being compensated for their losses in the conflict, some Arab militiamen have formed alliances with rebels in the mountains near Nertiti, a stronghold of the SLA faction loyal to Nur, according to African Union peacekeepers.

Some analysts say the defections show how little control the government has over the janjaweed and suggest that neutralizing the fearsome militias may prove an impossible task.

"These alliances may be temporary ones. But the problem of disarming the Arab militias is going to affect any future peace agreement," said Hafiz Mohamed, a Darfur expert with the London-based group Justice Africa. "It will affect whether people will ever be able to return to their homes safely. Even if we reach agreement with all the armed movements, we need to have a real process of social peace."

Only if the diplomats surmount the major challenges - of securing the deployment of international forces and reuniting the rebel forces - will the process begin, allowing Osman Ahmed and his family to go home.

2007 McClatchy Newspapers

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