CAIRO – Heavy fighting between government forces and a rebel group in central Darfur led a French-aid group to suspend its activities, sent thousands of people fleeing, and sorely tested a recent cease-fire in the war-ravaged region, rebels and U.N. officials said Friday.
The fighting involved a rebel faction that shunned the truce signed Tuesday in Qatar. Observers have cautioned that the truce and subsequent peace talks cannot hold if all rebel groups are not on board.
U.N. humanitarian official Samuel Hendricks said a government offensive on the rebel Sudan Liberation Army's stronghold in Jebel Marrah began two weeks ago, but fighting intensified in the last few days, with confirmed reports of aerial bombardments in Deribat, a town of 50,000, and two other surrounding areas.
Access to the area has been impossible, Hendricks said, appealing for a cease-fire to allow humanitarian aid to reach people believed displaced by the fighting.
"It is simply impossible to know how many people are affected," he said. "The entire issue now is how to get access" to the civilians.
Government officials were not immediately available for comment. But Ibrahim el-Helw, an SLA member, corroborated the airstrikes and said his group was putting up a strong resistance.
"The government wants destruction and wants people displaced, not peace," el-Helw said.
French aid group Medecins Du Monde said Thursday it had suspended its operations in the area and estimated that 100,000 people were displaced by the recent fighting. The group had already pulled out its foreign staff from the Jebel Marrah region earlier this month because of the clashes.
Medecins Du Monde, or Doctors of the World, said in a statement that it is concerned by lack of potable water and fears an outbreak of meningitis in the area.
Jebel Marrah is a protected mountainous area that has been an SLA stronghold for years. Government forces who now control much of Darfur occasionally launch attacks to try to dislodge the group.
The SLA was one of the main groups that launched the rebellion against the Sudanese government in 2003, but it has been weakened badly by splintering. Its fighters are now largely confined to their mountainous Jebel Marrah hide-out.
The group remains popular among Darfur refugees, however, and the government advance on SLA positions appear designed to strip the group of its military base.
The SLA says it did not join the truce the rebel Justice and Equality Movement signed with the government this week because it wants the government to first lay down its arms and end disband its own militia.
U.N. officials say as many as 300,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million displaced in the fighting between ethnic African rebels and government and Arab militias. The government says the figures are wildly exaggerated.