The chief of the only Darfur rebel group that signed a peace agreement with the Sudanese government set an ultimatum today for Khartoum to disarm the feared janjaweed paramilitary group by the end of December.
The ultimatum from Minni Minawi, head of the main branch of the Sudan Liberation Movement, came a day after the pro-government janjaweed looted the central market in north Darfur’s capital, El Fasher, clashing with SLM fighters and killing at least two.
UN observers say janjaweed attacks have increased in recent months at the same time that the government has been waging a new offensive against Darfur rebels who have refused to sign the peace treaty for the war-torn western region of the country.
Minnawi did not say what steps he would take if the government failed to meet the deadline, but his spokesman hinted the SLM could pull out of the peace treaty.
“The government must disarm and neutralise the janjaweed by the end of this month,” Minni Minawi said.
“Otherwise a bridge will be crossed, and no one knows what will happen,” he said.
The SLM’s withdrawal from the treaty could lead to the collapse of the fragile deal on which the UN and others have pinned hopes for bringing peace to the region.
The SLM was the only rebel group to sign the Darfur Peace Agreement with the government in May, while other factions have continued fighting.
More than 200,000 people are estimated to have died in three years of violence in Darfur.
The Khartoum government is accused of unleashing the janjaweed to help put down ethnic African rebels in the region, and the militiamen are blamed for widespread atrocities against villagers. Their attacks and rebel-government fighting have driven 2.5 million people from their homes.
Minawi, who became a senior adviser to the president as part of power-sharing provisions under the DPA, said the peace deal was constantly being violated by government forces.
“The janjaweed have to stop the killing and looting,” he said.
Janjaweed groups reportedly began looting the central market in El Fasher on Monday. SLM fighters stationed in the north Darfur capital then clashed with the militia, said the spokesman for the African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, Noureddine Mezni.
“The AU troops deployed in the market to cease the fighting,” he said. AU peacekeepers evacuated five gravely injured people, including two SLM fighters who died of their wounds at the hospital, Mezni said.
The SLM said several janjaweed had also been killed in the clash, but the allegations could not immediately be confirmed.
The Sudanese military was not available for comment. The government denies backing the janjaweed, but agreed to disarm them as part of the Darfur Peace Accord.
Multiple observers have however stated Khartoum has instead reinforced the militia, especially in El Fasher, to resist a push by a separate coalition of rebels in north Darfur.
Minawi’s spokesman Saif Haroun said the clash in El Fasher was “a very strong signal for the government to react ... If there is no change soon, our options as a rebel group are on the table.”
Top UN officials say janjaweed backed by the army have recently increased their attacks throughout Darfur and are specifically targeting civilians, including children.
Minawi said he had reports janjaweed had destroyed 48 villages in south Darfur, a zone meant to be under SLM control where he says no rebel violence was taking place. ”There are no justifications to these violations of the ceasefire,” he said. “These unprovoked attacks have to cease now.”
The situation remained tense in El Fasher today, the AU said. “We have information that the town and the AU garrison could be attacked in the coming hours” by other rebel factions who didn’t sign the peace agreement, Mezni said.
The AU has 7,000 troops deployed in Darfur to monitor a ceasefire that has all but collapsed since May amid increased rebel infighting and an upsurge of militia attacks. The Sudanese government has resisted pressure to allow in a much larger force that would include UN peacekeepers.
Fighting began in the remote Darfur region of Sudan’s far west in 2003 when rebels stemming from tribes of ethnic African villagers took up arms against the Arab-dominated central government.