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KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudanese government forces clashed with Arab fighters in the country's Darfur region, U.N. and rebel sources said on Thursday, in a sign of the complexity of Sudan's seven-year Darfur conflict.
Sudan's army denied any fighting took place and said there were no rebel forces in the area.
The Darfur conflict first broke out in 2003 when two mostly non-Arab rebel groups took up arms against Sudan's government accusing it of neglecting the development of the region.
Khartoum mobilised mostly Arab militias to crush the uprising, unleashing attacks that Washington and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court say amounted to genocide.
As the fighting continued, the picture became more complicated as a number of Arab fighters joined the revolt, saying they were equally marginalised.
Analysts say there have also been signs of disaffection among sections of the Arab tribes who earlier supplied fighters for the counter-insurgency.
There have also been repeated outbursts of fighting between rival Arab communities sparked by revenge attacks and long-standing disputes over water and resources.
A U.N. source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they had received credible reports of clashes between Sudan's Armed Forces and members of the Arab Misseriya tribe in mountains west of the South Darfur town of Kass on Tuesday and Wednesday with casualties on both sides.
A spokesman for the Arab-led rebel United Revolutionary Force Front (URFF) said government forces, backed up by attack helicopters and jets, had attacked its positions. "Seven civilian Arab nomads were killed and our force lost two people," said Alhadi Agabaldour in an email exchange with Reuters.
Darfur's rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) said its commanders near the area reported fighting between Sudan's army and the followers of URFF leader Ibrahim Al Zubaidi. The URFF accused Sudan's army of killing Zubaidi in an ambush last month and vowed never to return to peace talks.
Sudan's army spokesman told Reuters his forces had not taken part in any fighting in the area in recent days. "There was no fighting in Kass or in the Jabel Marra area in general," he said, referring to mountains nearby.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama last month offered Khartoum new, unspecified incentives if it ended violence in Darfur, and successfully concluded a 2005 peace accord with former rebels in the south of the country.
Law and order has collapsed in Darfur during the crisis and international workers have been targeted by a wave of kidnappings, mostly motivated by money.
The WFP said armed men briefly abducted one if its drivers and stole his vehicle early on Wednesday morning near the North Darfur town of Kabkabiya. The Sudanese man was released and the vehicle found abandoned later that afternoon, said spokeswoman Amor Almagro.