NAIROBI, KENYA — Darfur rebels from western Sudan took their five-year struggle to the doorstep of their country's capital Saturday, engaging government forces in gun battles on the outskirts of Khartoum.
The offensive by the Justice and Equality Movement, one of the main Darfur rebel groups, was not believed to represent a serious threat to the government, but the fact that fighters got so close to Khartoum was seen as a political embarrassment that might encourage other anti-government groups to rise up.
By Saturday night, officials had imposed a citywide curfew but said the rebels had been defeated. State television showed pictures of burned trucks and bodies, reportedly those of rebel forces.
A leader of the rebel group said its forces would continue to fight to overthrow the Khartoum government and said they were receiving support from other opposition militias in various parts of the country.
"People are joining us from all over," Tahir Elfaki, head of the group's legislative council, said in a telephone interview from London. As of Saturday evening, gunfire was still being heard in Omdurman, Khartoum's twin city, and smoke could be seen rising in several places.
Elfaki said the attack on Khartoum was designed to bring Darfur's suffering to the heart of the government. Although the region's humanitarian crisis garners international attention, it is largely unreported in the capital.
"The government has tried to keep us occupied in western Sudan, but we have decided enough is enough," Elfaki said. "We are going to deploy throughout the country."
The Justice and Equality Movement, which is partly backed by the government of Chad, is considered the best-armed movement in Darfur, where an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people have died in a conflict pitting the Khartoum government against various rebel groups.
But experts questioned whether the movement's forces could infiltrate the well- protected capital and take on Sudanese security forces.
"It looks like a suicide mission to me," Safwat Fanous, a political scientist at the University of Khartoum, said in a telephone interview. "If they need food or weapons, they are 1,000 kilometers away from their base in Darfur. They don't have any air support. They don't even have tanks, just armed Land Cruisers."
One government official said the rebels had chiefly scored a public relations victory.
"It's serious to the extent that they are making some real noise inside Khartoum," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Their goal is to attract attention and get people here involved in a dramatic way."
Anxious residents cleared the streets Saturday afternoon as the government ordered all citizens to remain in their homes. Soldiers patrolled the city and seized control of the airport.
"The whole downtown emptied in 10 minutes," said Waleed Arafat Ali, a Khartoum travel agent.
Sudanese officials accused the Chadian government of backing the assault as payback for Sudan's alleged role in backing a similar rebel attack this year against Chad's capital, N'Djamena. Chadian forces, with support from the French army, rebuffed the attack.