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Darfur's rebels pose latest threat to the displaced

Militias tied to Sudan's regime have been blamed for assaults; now, their foes are too.

March 13, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

GEREIDA, SUDAN — This sunbaked displacement camp, considered the largest in Darfur, has become a virtual no-go zone.

Aid workers abandoned Gereida in December after gunmen stormed their compounds, raping an international staffer and stealing a dozen trucks. Last week, African Union troops suspended daily patrols after the shooting deaths of two Nigerian soldiers outside their base.

Now anxiety and desperation are growing among the 120,000 people crammed inside this camp in the southern part of Sudan's western region of Darfur.

The misery is depressingly common in this region torn by war, but the prime culprits are new: Darfur's rebels.

Until now, the bulk of the suffering in Darfur involved attacks by Arab nomad militias, known as janjaweed, allegedly backed by the Sudanese government.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Sudan caption: A photograph accompanying an article in Section A on Tuesday about rebels in Darfur, Sudan, was taken in Kuteri, not Gereida.

But the attacks against aid groups and the African Union soldiers came not from the janjaweed or government troops, officials say, but from factions of the Sudanese Liberation Army, or SLA, the rebel group formed in 2003 to defend Darfur's tribes against assault. Once viewed by many here as freedom fighters, the rebels over the last year have fractured into more than a dozen feuding factions.

Their attacks underscore a new and rising threat to Darfur's long-suffering people.

Many here ran out of food in January when rebel attacks forced the United Nations World Food Program to halt visits. The International Committee of the Red Cross took over emergency work last month, resuming food deliveries and stabilizing the water supply. But camp residents fear other humanitarian workers may never return, leaving them to fend for themselves in a hostile desert.

"Nobody cares about us," said Issa Dalill Degas, 48, lying last week in a hospital cot after being shot by bandits while driving to a nearby town. His 23 children get only one meal of corn and beans a day because he's worried food will run short again. "We're hungry and tired," he said. "After the aid groups left, we haven't anything."

More than 200,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003, mostly of disease and hunger in the early years of the fighting. An additional 2.5 million residents have been displaced.

Still, since 2004, more than $1 billion in aid has poured into the region, and aid agencies have created what they see as one of the world's biggest humanitarian success stories. Malnutrition rates in camps have been slashed in half, to below the 15% emergency level. Mortality rates have decreased by one-third. Many displacement camps offer not only food and water, but also schools, health clinics and marketplaces.

Now, however, the increased attacks on aid workers are putting those gains at risk.

"People can't do what they need to do," said Dawn Blalock, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Because of security concerns, aid groups have resorted to "hit-and-run" aid, Blalock said. "You sweep in with a four months' supply and then hope everything will be OK until you can get back," she said.

Cameron Hume, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, said factionalization of rebel groups was a growing cause of crime and bloodshed in Darfur.

"Most of the violence now against the [aid groups] is by the rebels or by the non-government-backed forces, though that doesn't exonerate the government," he said.

Many accuse the Arab-dominated Sudanese government of encouraging the rebel split by pursuing a "divide-and-rule" strategy, bribing some of the groups while bombing others.

In May, the government signed a peace agreement with one SLA faction led by rebel leader Minni Minnawi, who received a plum government job in exchange. Other rebel commanders rejected the deal, leading to further splits, power struggles and aggressive behavior.

"They're like a lot of warlords," said a security official for one aid organization who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the past, rebel fighters resupplied their arms and vehicles by attacking government forces. With a decrease in direct clashes between rebels and the government, experts say, rebels are now attacking aid groups to resupply.

Aid groups report near-daily carjackings around Darfur. A dozen Sudanese aid workers have been killed in the last year, most during robberies. Usually the attackers are never identified.

In the attacks in Gereida against the aid workers and the African Union soldiers, witnesses said they recognized SLA soldiers among the gunmen, according to AU officials.

"We know it was the SLA," said Capt. Kris Amadeco Anogo, operations officer for the African Union peacekeepers in Gereida. "You can't trust them." He said an AU vehicle carrying four soldiers on a routine patrol was stopped by SLA gunmen on foot. One soldier was injured and another escaped unharmed. But the attackers seized the truck with the two additional soldiers still inside. The peacekeepers' bodies were later discovered nearby.

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