By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Sudanese planes bombed close to a rebel-held town in Darfur on Monday after the government asked peacekeepers to leave ahead of a planned assault, the international force said.
Thousands of civilians took shelter around a base run by the joint U.N./African Union force in the south Darfur town of Muhajiriya, a spokesman for the peacekeepers said.
UNAMID said Khartoum asked peacekeepers to withdraw on Sunday because the army was preparing to take the town back from Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebels, who seized it last month.
“But we are not going to leave while there are thousands of displaced people around our camp,” UNAMID spokesman Noureddine Mezni said. “The Sudanese government should be aware that their actions are endangering civilians and UNAMID.”
The UNAMID mission is undermanned and underequipped while tension is escalating in Darfur ahead of an expected decision by International Criminal Court judges on whether to indict Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes.
Mezni said mediators were trying to talk to the government and rebels to prevent fighting over Muhajiriya.
UNAMID officials said peacekeepers had reported bombing around 3 km (almost 2 miles) east of the town on Monday. No one was immediately available to comment from Sudan’s armed forces.
Air attacks in Darfur are banned in U.N. Security Council resolutions, but Sudan’s army has said it has the right to confront rebel forces who have not signed peace accords.
Mezni said the U.N./AU representative in Darfur, Rodolphe Adada, met senior government officials in Khartoum on Monday to try to negotiate an end to the crisis over the south Darfur town.
U.N./AU mediator Djbril Bassole planned to fly to neighbouring Chad to meet rebel leaders, he said.
Muhajiriya has been the centre of more than two weeks of fighting between government and JEM forces — the worst violence in Darfur in a year. JEM seized the town in mid January from former rebels who signed a peace deal.
On Monday, JEM commanders said they had moved to positions outside the town to minimise the risk to civilians.
JEM has not signed any accord with Khartoum and the latest fighting has cast a shadow over faltering peace efforts.
International experts say 200,000 people have died in Darfur almost six years after mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms, accusing the government of neglect. Khartoum denies accusations of genocide from Washington and campaign groups.
Editing by Matthew Tostevin