Darfur battle kills 45 - rebel group

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KHARTOUM, Sep 19 (Reuters) A rebel leader from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region said his fighters defeated a government battalion today in a three-hour battle that killed 45 people.

Sudan Liberation Army faction chairman Ahmed Abdel Shafie said one of his units attacked government soldiers stationed in the village of Dobow in the central Jabel Marra region.

A Sudanese armed services spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

Shafie said he had ordered the attack to clear government forces from a key access route through his territory.

''This is territory controlled by the SLA Ahmed Abdel Shafie faction. The government were trying to block the roads to this area, to stop support coming to people in this area. We had to clear the roads. Now aid agencies will be able to come and bring help to the people who need it,'' he said.

Shafie said 40 government soldiers and five rebels were killed in the early morning assault, adding: ''The rest of the government troops fled.'' The attack is the latest in a series of confrontations reported in Sudan's remote west that have cast a shadow over plans for peace talks between Sudan's government and rebel groups in October.

Representatives from five Darfuri insurgent groups, including the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), met in Chad on Wednesday to try to agree a common position ahead of the peace talks.

But one rebel leader, Abdel Wahid el-Nur, a founder of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) whose backing is seen as key to any Darfur peace deal, was absent from the meeting.

He has refused to take part in peace talks with Sudan's government scheduled to be held in Libya on October 27, saying international troops must first guarantee security by disarming militias in Darfur.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due to chair a high level meeting in New York this week to finalise a strategy for the peace negotiations.

Shafie said he was sending a report to the New York meeting setting out his conditions for the talks. ''There are many things we need to get established before the talks. The main one is security,'' he said.

The United Nations reported an unnamed aid agency had shut its operations in three areas of south Darfur after three armed men hijacked one of its vehicles yesterday.

Mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in 2003 accusing the central government of marginalising Darfur. Khartoum mobilised militias to quell the revolt.

International experts say more than four years of fighting has killed 200,000 people and driven more than 2.5 million from their homes. Khartoum says the numbers are exaggerated.

REUTERS RC BST0107

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