KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan’s army clashed with Darfur rebels for the second time in a week on Tuesday, peacekeepers said, and insurgents said they shot down a helicopter gunship, killing at least three people.
Fighting has disrupted the remote western territory for almost eight years, in the face of a string of failed ceasefires and internationally backed negotiations.
A spokesman from the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) loyal to Abdel Wahed Mohamed al-Nur said its forces and allied insurgents clashed with the army near the North Darfur town of Thabit on Tuesday morning.
A statement from SLA official Adam Salih Abakr said the rebels, fighting alongside another SLA faction and the insurgent Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), killed a large number of government soldiers.
“They shot down a helicopter gunship near El Fasher (North Darfur’s capital),” the statement said, adding that three people in the helicopter were killed and one wounded.
No one was immediately available to comment from the army.
“It is confirmed that there is ongoing fighting,” said Kemal Saiki, spokesman for Darfur’s joint U.N./African Union UNAMID peacekeeping force.
Saiki said clashes between the SLA and the army broke out on Monday near Thabit, 50 km (30 miles) southwest of UNAMID’s headquarters in El Fasher, but he could not confirm that a helicopter had been shot down.
Violence has decreased, compared with the mass killings reported at the beginning of the conflict in 2003 and 2004 when the SLA and JEM launched a united revolt, accusing the Khartoum elite of monopolising power.
But attacks have been reported regularly, particularly since JEM walked out of peace talks in the Qatari capital last year.
The army said JEM and SLA rebels ambushed its forces on Thursday, leaving 21 dead from both sides.
In another sign of tension, Sudanese police arrested 37 people in El Fasher’s Zamzam refugee camp on Sunday after searching the settlement, saying they were looking for weapons and criminals, UNAMID reported.
Sudanese forces did not tell the peacekeepers about the raid until after it had started, breaking an earlier agreement to give notice of actions in camps, and initially barred a UNAMID patrol from entering the camp, said Saiki.
“It is difficult to know whether it (barring entry) was on purpose or ... just a guy at the gate with an AK-47,” he added.
Sudanese soldiers fired warning shots when they saw a UNAMID patrol on Saturday near the north Darfur settlement of Dar El Salam and stopped it from entering the area, a U.N. source said.
The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accusing him of ordering genocide during his campaign to crush the uprising. Khartoum dismisses the charges and refuses to recognise the court.