- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

SHEGEK KARO, Sudan — Inhabitants of this picturesque village in the Darfur region of western Sudan said the Sudanese air force sprayed them with a strange powder in an attack in May that killed two villagers and dozens of cattle.

Another bomb, dropped by a jet fighter on the same day, produced a poisonous smoke that injured about 50 villagers on the other side of the village, the villagers said.

A Sudanese air force Antonov plane dropped several rectangular plastic sacks containing a white, flourlike powder on a wadi — a dry riverbed — in the lower part of the village, they said.

“This is the first time I’m hearing about this,” a spokeswoman for Ambassador Khidir Haroun Ahmed said. She promised the embassy would look into the matter.

A major humanitarian crisis has unfolded as the government and allied Arab militia groups battle rebel movements in the impoverished Darfur region. The United States and United Nations have criticized Khartoum over its failure to protect civilians in the contested region.

Suleiman Jamous, humanitarian coordinator with the Sudanese Liberation Movement, the political arm of the anti-government Sudanese Liberation Army, said the May incident followed other reports of strange substances that kill livestock.

“Almost every village in this area has been affected,” Mr. Jamous said. “Animals die every day because they eat something that leaked out of bombs dropped by the Sudanese army.”

But Georgette Gagnon, deputy director of the African division of Human Rights Watch, yesterday denied Mr. Jamous’ assertion that her group had been given samples of the suspected chemical for analysis.

“We cannot verify or disprove at the moment any assertions of a chemical attack,” she said, adding that a Human Rights Watch team deployed in Darfur will return to the United States next week.

The Sudanese government has denied past charges of chemical weapons use, including a 1999 British Broadcasting Corp. report that such weapons were used against rebels in the southern part of Darfur.

But John Prendergast, a Sudan specialist at the International Crisis Group, said persistent, unconfirmed accounts of chemical weapons attacks by the government over the past decade made it vital that international monitors fully investigate incidents such as the one reported at Shegek Karo.

The villagers said they could not remember the exact date of the May attack.

Diro Chupui, a 33-year-old shepherd, said he was tending his flock on the mountainside opposite the wadi when he heard the plane approach.

“It was a big white plane with its bottom painted black,” Mr. Chupui said. “We call them ‘Black Antonovs.’ ”

Muhammad Abdullah,13, said he was at the hand-pump wells in the wadi when he heard a loud noise.

“We lay on the ground because we knew that the Antonov was coming,” he said.

The village had been bombed for several months and everyone knew that bombs would be falling again soon, he said.

But instead of the usual load of bombs, the Antonov, a Russian-made transport plane converted into a bomber, dropped plastic sacks that burst on impact and spilled a flourlike substance, the boy said.

Mukhtar Muhammad, a 30-year-old shopkeeper at the nearby market, said he counted eight sacks.

“They were like parcels,” Mr. Muhammad said. “They contained something that looked like fine ash and smelled of gunpowder. It made people sick immediately.”

Muhammad, the boy at the well, said everyone there got sick, too.

“We were vomiting and it hurt in the stomach a lot,” he said. “I was sick for a week.”

A 60-year-old man and a 4-year-old boy who were close to one of the sacks died within hours. The villagers identified the victims as Salim Diar and Muhammad Ibrahim, and pointed out Mr. Diar’s grave under a tree near where he died.

“All the animals that were near the powder or ate it dropped dead,” Mr. Muhammad said, pointing to about two dozen rotten carcasses strewn on the floor of the wadi. It was impossible to verify whether the animals had died of the powder or other causes.

On the other side of the village, a government jet dropped another unusual bomb, said Ismail Haggar, the village teacher.

“It wasn’t an iron bomb,” Mr. Haggar said, pointing to the bomb’s relatively shallow crater in the ground. “It didn’t produce a loud explosion, but there was a lot of smoke coming out of the crater.”

The smoke covered almost the entire valley, but the wind blew it away from the village, Mr. Haggar said. Still, about 50 people in nearby huts fell violently ill, he said.

“They had strong headaches,” Mr. Haggar said, poking the bottom of the crater with a long branch to reveal a white powdery substance under the sand.

“They were vomiting, feeling very weak and very cold. Some people were sick for two weeks. If the winds were blowing their way, they would all be dead.”

When asked whether he could show the place where the villagers buried the sacks, Mr. Haggar said they were washed away by the water that filled the wadi during the rainy season.

Villagers said five sacks were blown away by the wind.

Umda Muhammad Shatta, a tribal leader in the villages of Bredik and Anka, which have been destroyed by the Sudanese army and the so-called Janjaweed militia, said animals die when they come near craters or unexploded bombs.

“These unexploded bombs leak an oily substance,” Mr. Shatta said. “It’s very poisonous.”

The animals also mistake the gray ashes in the craters for salt and eat it, he said. “That kills them, too; we don’t know what was in those bombs, we are very worried.”

cDavid R. Sands contributed to this report in Washington.

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