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By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Sudanese government planes bombed a key town in south Darfur on Saturday, a week after its seizure by Darfuri JEM rebels, peacekeepers and insurgents said.
Bombs landed close to a base run by the joint U.N./African Union peacekeeping force, UNAMID, in the town of Muhajiriya and destroyed houses, a U.N. official said.
A senior commander for the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) told Reuters 16 civilians were killed in the raid, including a young child. It was impossible to verify the figures independently.
Tensions have been rising in Darfur as all sides of a nearly six-year-old conflict are waiting for the International Criminal Court to decide whether to issue an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes.
No one from Sudan’s armed forces was available to comment on the accounts of the raid. Air attacks in Darfur are forbidden under a 2006 peace deal and U.N. Security Council resolutions.
But Sudan’s army acknowledged its planes bombed JEM positions outside Muhajiriya last week. In the past officers have said they have the right to act in self defence.
The JEM seized control of Muhajiriya last week from forces led by Minni Arcua Minnawi, the only Darfur rebel leader to have signed a peace deal with the government in 2006.
UN officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, warned at the time that Minnawi’s forces were re-grouping for a counter-attack, possibly backed by government troops.
One official, who asked not to be named, said government planes had bombed Muhajiriya on Saturday morning. “Some bombs landed near the UNAMID compound and some houses have been burned,” he said.
UNAMID’s spokesman Noureddine Mezni said a large number of Muhajiriya residents took refuge in the peacekeepers’ base during the attack. “I can confirm the bombing took place. We are very concerned about the situation,” he said.
The attacks were also confirmed by JEM’s chief negotiator, Ahmed Tugud. “The Sudan Armed Forces aircraft are bombing Muhajiriya. There are flames everywhere in the town,” he told Reuters at 12:30 p.m. (0930 GMT).
JEM commander Suleiman Sandal told Reuters the attack destroyed 25 houses in the settlement, which is close to the capital of South Darfur Nyala.
“The people of Muhajiriya welcomed us when we took the town. Now the army is punishing them,” he said.
International experts say 200,000 people have died since JEM and other rebels took up arms against the government in 2003, accusing it of neglecting the remote western region.
Khartoum mobilised mostly Arab militias to rush the rebellion. It denies activists’ accusations that genocide took place during the counter-insurgency.
The reported bombing came a day after a joint U.N./African Union report said Sudanese government forces had broken international law by firing on civilians during an August raid on South Darfur’s Kalma displacement camp, just 80km (50 miles) west of Muhajiriya. (Reporting by Andrew Heavens)