Xan Rice

Accuses its neighbour of supporting Darfur rebel groups

NAIROBI: Sudan snapped diplomatic ties with Chad on Sunday after an attack on Khartoum by a Darfur rebel group.

The assault by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) on Omdurman on Saturday marked the first time during the civil war that any rebel group had reached Sudan’s capital. Government forces repulsed the attack, which prompted an overnight curfew in Khartoum, and accusing fingers were immediately pointed towards Chad.

President Omar al-Bashir claimed on Sunday that the rebels had been “totally destroyed” by the Army. “These forces are basically Chadian forces supported and prepared by Chad ... We are now cutting diplomatic relations with this regime,” he said.

Chad denied any involvement, but it does have a history of close military ties with JEM. Relations between the two countries were already poor, after accusations by Chad in February that Sudan sponsored guerrillas who launched an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Chad’s President Idriss Deby.

JEM is one of more than a dozen rebel groups in Darfur and has emerged as a potent fighting force. The attack on Omdurman came after JEM forces engaged troops in Kordofan province, which separates Darfur from the Sudanese capital, nearly 640 km away. Unlike other Darfur rebel movements, JEM has a country-wide agenda, and had launched attacks in Kordofan, including an assault on a Chinese-run oilfield in 2007.

It accuses Mr. Bashir’s Arab-dominated regime of propagating inequality throughout Sudan, and wants different regions to have a stronger say in the government.

With just a few thousand fighters, JEM is vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the 100,000-strong Sudanese Army.

But it does have money and powerful benefactors. Apart from Mr. Deby, who is from the same Zaghawa ethnic group as him, the JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim is often linked to Hassan al-Turabi, a controversial politician who was jailed by the government for more than a year in 2004.

Mr. Bashir on Sunday accused Mr. Ibrahim of leading the attack on Omdurman, while state TV broadcast the rebel leader’s picture, branding him a war criminal and offering a $125,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. Pictures of captured vehicles and rebels were also shown.

The curfew in Khartoum was lifted on Sunday, except in Omdurman, where soldiers searched for rebels. Army spokesman Osman al-Agbash called the attack “a foolish act” and warned of negative consequences. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008