- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

LONDON - A leading rebel group in Sudan’s western Darfur region, which managed to attack Sudan’s capital of Khartoum earlier this month, says it is seeking an alliance with a former rebel group that dominates southern Sudan to help overthrow the Islamist-dominated government of Lt. Gen. Omar Bashir.

“The [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement] has misread the situation by trusting al-Bashir. In truth, he is our common enemy. We are trying to get closer to them,” said Abdullahi El-Tom, head of strategic planning for the Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a Christian and animist group, waged a 20-year civil war against the Arab and Islamist dominated North, which claimed an estimated 1.5 million lives.

Shortly after a peace treaty in 2005 ended the North-South civil war, and brought the SPLM into an uneasy national unity government, a second civil war erupted between the Islamist administration in Khartoum and rebels in Darfur.

Within the past month, new fighting has erupted on both fronts.

The latest episode began May 10, when the Darfur-based JEM militia launched a lightning cross-desert raid on Khartoum, driving unchecked hundreds of miles to the city’s west Nile bank.

Three days of pitched battles and street fighting left more than 200 people dead and shook the Sudanese capital of 8 million.

“We are able to move freely around Kordofan, and have acquired plenty of weaponry from our attacks on government positions,” Mr. El-Tom told The Washington Times. He was referring to the region between Khartoum and Darfur.

In addition to his role as head of strategic planning for JEM, Mr. El-Tom also lectures at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth, and is on the advisory board of Irish Aid, Dublin’s equivalent to U.S. Agency for International Development.

JEM is led by Khalil Ibrahim, who has promised “regime change” in Sudan, going beyond the ambitions of Darfur’s other rebel factions, which focus on Darfur-centered issues.

After repelling the JEM, the Sudanese army subsequently rounded up hundreds of Darfurians living in Khartoum, focusing on the ethnic Zaghawa tribe that is said to dominate the JEM.

Addressing a rally in Khartoum on May 13, Gen. Bashir described Mr. Ibrahim as someone who “sold himself to Israel, Zionism and the devil.”

In a country that has known only 11 years of peace since independence in 1956, it was the first time in any of Sudan’s long wars that the capital was directly threatened.

Then, over the week beginning May 20, Sudanese forces destroyed the town of Abyei along the North-South border, leveling portions of the oil hub that were awarded to the SPLM-led part of Sudan under the 2005 peace deal.

With nationwide elections scheduled next year, the political and security stakes are high. Potential International Criminal Court indictments hang over members of Gen. Bashir’s government. Moreover, the elections are to be followed by a referendum in 2011 on whether the south should secede.

“Al-Bashir did not accept the international arbitration over Abyei, and will reduce Sudan to ashes again rather give up power or oil,” Mr. El-Tom said.

Sudan is in the midst of an oil boom, with record global prices and Chinese investment in the oil industry turning Khartoum into a boomtown, even as the majority of Sudanese live in squalor.

Sudan’s government says that the May 10 JEM attack on Khartoum was backed by Chad, which in turn accuses Sudan of supporting Chadian rebels.

A combined African Union/United Nations peacekeeping force entered Darfur in January, but remains at just over one-third of the projected 26,000 strength.

A Nigerian contingent of the AU/U.N. force was ambushed and disarmed by an unidentified group of Sudanese only last week.

In Chad, meanwhile, the European Union is building up a separate 4,000-strong peacekeeping force to protect Darfurian refugees from a number of Khartoum-backed rebel groups that wants to overthrow Chad’s government.

With the Sudanese government reeling from the JEM assault, and the peace agreement with the militarily-potent SPLM looking shaky, Khartoum may want, to “lash out like a cornered animal, and escalate this crisis,” a Western diplomat said.

The diplomat spoke with The Times by telephone from Khartoum, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for attribution.

Salih Osman, a Sudanese human rights lawyer and winner of the EU’s 2007 Sakharov human rights prize, said:

“The U.N. Security Council not only has a responsibility to intervene to stop the massive rights violations in Darfur, but must act under its Chapter 7 provisions to prevent a regional disaster.”

Both Mr. Osman and Mr. El-Tom said they anticipate another government-led assault on the civilian population of Darfur in retaliation for the attack on Khartoum.

Fighting in Darfur has killed more than 200,000 and displaced more than 2.5 million people, according to U.N. estimates.

Mr. Osman accused the government of deliberately inflaming the situation to maintain control in Darfur.

“The government wants to keep [Darfur refugees] in camps,” he said. “This all goes back to plans established many years ago by [Libyan leader Col. Moammar] Gadhafi and others to ‘Arabize’ this region, and move the African people off the land.”

Gen. Bashir’s government is dominated by Arabs from his Islamist faction, with the SPLM as a minority partner. Darfurians are mostly Muslim, and the JEM is composed of many Islamists that became disillusioned with Gen. Bashir.

While the SPLM has officially condemned the Darfur rebel attack on Khartoum, Mr. El-Tom said that overtures to the southerners continue, in the hope of forging a broad alliance against Gen. Bashir’s government.

Pagan Amun, the No. 2 leader in the SPLM, said earlier this week that Sudan was on the verge of another North-South civil war.

He accused the government of “ethnic cleansing” the local Ngok Dinka in Abyei - the tribe that makes up the majority of SPLM leaders.

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