KHARTOUM, Oct 9 (Reuters) A Sudanese army air and ground assault killed at least 40 people in the Darfur town of Muhajiriya, where bodies littered the streets amid burned out buildings, rebels who control the area said today.
''Until now the number of dead civilians are at least 40, with 80 missing and a large number of injured,'' the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) said in a statement sent to Reuters.
The SLA faction led by Minni Arcua Minnawi was the only one of three rebel negotiating groups to sign a May 2006 peace deal with Khartoum and became part of the government.
''Bodies are still lying around the town as this statement is written,'' the statement by SLA Minnawi's military spokesman Mohamed Hamid Dirbeen said.
''Some of the victims looked like they had been executed,'' it said of the attack yesterday.
AU force commander Martin Luther Agwai, who will also command a 26,000-strong joint UN-AU force due to take over from the AU, earlier confirmed a government air attack.
''Yesterday ... I was informed that there was some bombing and military activity in the area of Muhajiriya,'' he said of the raid which is a violation of a UN Security Council resolution that banned Khartoum from offensive flying.
Agwai said civilians converged on the nearby AU base for safety.
His troops treated about two dozen injured civilians and combatants but did not allow them to enter the base.
Reports from the town said the market and many houses were burnt and a number of civilians and rebels had been killed after army vehicles tore through yesterday.
The Sudanese army was not immediately available to comment.
Muhajiriya, which is home to about 5,000 residents, also hosts more than 44,500 Darfuris displaced by violence elsewhere.
Agwai said it was not yet clear why the fighting began on Monday, but initial reports indicated it could be tribal rivalries or a spillover from government clashes with other rebel factions.
He called for calm ahead of peace talks to begin in Libya on October 27. ''It is sad that as we are looking forward to Libya that people have engaged themselves in this activity causing destruction and loss of lives,'' Agwai said.
Minnawi's group called the attack a ''stab in the back of the Darfur peace agreement''.
TALKS IN JEOPARDY Mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in early 2003 accusing Khartoum of neglect. Khartoum mobilised militias to quell the revolt, who now stand accused of war crimes. An estimated 200,000 people have died in the violence and 2.5 million have fled their homes.
Khartoum denies the death toll and says the western media is exaggerating the crisis.
Yesterday's raid was the latest in a series of deadly attacks that threaten to undermine efforts to bring more of Darfur's armed factions into the peace process and make way for the arrival of UN and AU troops to take over from 7,000 AU forces who have failed to contain the violence in western Sudan.
On September 29, the AU base in Haskanita was attacked and destroyed, killing 10 peacekeepers. Rebels were suspected of being behind the attack on the AU base.
In the following days, while the government controlled Haskanita, the former rebel-held town was burned to the ground and thousands of residents were sent fleeing.
Suleiman Jamous, respected humanitarian coordinator for the Sudan Liberation Army, said 105 people died when the town was razed by government forces and allied militia.
Analysts said the fact that rebel factions were suspected of attacking the AU Haskanita base gave Khartoum cover for an offensive to garner as much land as possible before the talks.
''The upshot of this strategy, of course, is that it becomes more difficult by the hour for any rebel faction or leader to show up in Sirte, Libya in 19 days,'' said U.S. academic Eric Reeves.
''Khartoum will of course show up in Gaddafi's home town, and make much of the fact that 'the rebels refuse to negotiate'.'' SLA founder Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur has said he will not attend talks until an able UN force could protect his people in Darfur. After this week's violence, some rival rebel commanders began to privately concur with his position.
British Minister for Africa Lord Mark Malloch Brown said if rebel leaders do not go to the talks, they abdicate their right to represent the people of Darfur.
''If they opt out, they should understand the consequences of doing that - probably their role in the peace negotiations may be finished,'' Malloch Brown told the BBC.
REUTERS SG BD1740