Sudan: Conditions getting worse for Darfur civilians

Reposted from Irin NAIROBI, 4 February 2009 (IRIN) - Conditions for civilians caught up in fighting between the Sudanese government and rebels in the South Darfur town of Muhajiriya are getting worse, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned.

'I am extremely concerned at the impact the fighting is having on the already dire humanitarian situation in Muhajiriya,' High Commissioner Navi Pillay said on 3 February.

The fighting, which started on 15 January, has claimed at least 30 lives and uprooted some 30,000 people from their homes. It pits government forces and the Sudanese Liberation Army/Mini Minnawi faction (SLA/MM) against the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

The SLA/MM faction is led by Mini Minnawi, who became a presidential adviser after signing a peace deal with the government in 2006.

In recent days, about 5,000 of the displaced civilians have sought refuge around the African Union-UN Mission (UNAMID) compound in Muhajiriya, about 80km east of the state capital, Nyala. Others have fled to seek shelter in the outskirts of the town.

Pillay urged the government and both armed groups involved to allow access to humanitarian workers to prevent a further deterioration of the situation.

Aerial bombardments

'The fighting is reported to have involved ground offensives and indiscriminate aerial bombardment by government forces which failed to distinguish between civilian communities and military targets, Pillay said.

'JEM forces are also reported to have deliberately placed themselves in areas heavily populated by civilians, thereby jeopardising their safety.'

AU appeal

In Addis Ababa, the African Union urged the parties to the conflict to 'give peace a chance and instead utilise the mediation of Djibril Bassole, the AU-UN Joint Mediator, and the ongoing Afro-Arab Initiative as an avenue towards bringing a peaceful and lasting settlement to the Darfur'.

The AU appeal came after the Sudanese authorities told UNAMID to withdraw its forces from Muhajiriya by the beginning of February 'to prevent casualties among UNAMID troops and citizens during the operation' to restore control over the town, according to a government statement published on the official Sudan News Agency.

UNAMID has since engaged in high-level diplomatic and political consultations to ensure that it maintains its presence in Muhajiriya, saying this would allow the mission to 'carry out its mandated tasks of providing protection to the civilian population and secure the provision of humanitarian assistance to those who need it'.

On 4 February, JEM offered to withdraw from the town, on condition that it be administered by UNAMID as a “non-military” zone, according to UN Radio Miraya. The army rejected JEM's condition.

The fighting began after Muhajiriya was taken over by JEM from the SLA/MM. Vowing to recapture the town, the army bombed the area and sent ground troops to fight JEM, arguing that it was acting in self-defence to maintain security and stability in Darfur and to protect aid convoys from bandits.

According to Sudan expert Alex de Waal, the situation has escalated ahead of a possible decision by the International Criminal Court on charges related to war crimes in Darfur against President Omar al-Bashir.