Sudan army denies attacking Darfur town

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KHARTOUM, Oct 10 (Reuters) Sudan's army has denied attacking the only Darfur rebel faction to sign a peace deal with Khartoum, saying tribal clashes were to blame for the fighting which killed 45 people in Muhajiriya town.

The Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) led by Minni Arcua Minnawi was the only one of three negotiating rebel factions to sign the May 2006 deal and become part of government. Muhajiriya in South Darfur is the largest town under their control.

Minnawi's faction said Monday's attack, which they said killed 45 people and destroyed half the town, was a ''stab in the back of the peace deal''.

Rebels said militias mobilised by the government, known as Janjaweed, along with a small number of army soldiers were still burning villages around Muhajiriya today.

''There are planes bombing in South Darfur,'' said SLA Unity faction commander Abu Bakr Kadu. ''The militias along with some government troops are attacking and burning civilian villages.'' But the army says it was not involved in Monday's attack.

''What is happening in the Muhajiriya area is tribal clashes between the people of the area and has no relation with the Sudanese army which took no part in it,'' it said in a statement issued yesterday late evening its first public reaction.

Analysts say the upsurge in fighting ahead of talks due to begin in Libya on October 27 is a land grab to garner stronger negotiating positions.

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

The US embassy said it was withdrawing staff from Darfur.

''Given the deterioration in security conditions in Darfur, the US embassy has decided to withdraw its personnel from Darfur until it is determined that the security situation warrants a return,'' it said in a warden message.

The United Nations said rising tensions had restricted access for aid workers in Nyala, capital of South Darfur, so some staff were being encouraged to take leave over the upcoming Muslim Eid holiday.

There's been upsurge of carjackings in and around Nyala, which was until recent weeks one of the safes towns in Darfur.

PEACE TALKS Referring to the fighting in Muhajiriya, AU force commander Martin Luther Agwai, who will command a 26,000-strong UN-AU force due to take over from the AU, said planes had flown over but had not bombed the town.

The army statement on state news agency SUNA said Sudanese planes seen circling were monitoring the nearby area of Haskanita, as requested by the AU peacekeeping force, and were not in the Muhajiriya region.

On September 29 growing tension erupted into a assault on the AU base near Haskanita, killing 10 soldiers and destroying the camp in the worst attack on the force since it deployed.

The AU withdrew, asking the army to secure the formerly rebel-controlled area to help search for almost 60 missing soldiers, all but one of whom were found.

Haskanita town was burnt to the ground and all the civilians fled, with rebels reporting 105 civilians killed.

In a sign of more possible violence ahead, rights group Amnesty International confirmed rebel reports of government troops massing in towns in North Darfur. Most areas north of the main towns are controlled by the rebels.

''It looks as though the Sudan Armed Forces want to attack this area before peace talks scheduled to take place in Libya before the end of the month,'' said Tawanda Hondora, deputy director of Amnesty International's Africa Programme.

Rebels said they expected invites soon, but said the violence had not created an environment for the talks.

''The mediation is unprepared, the methodology is unclear, the participation is unclear and until this is clear (we) cannot say if we are going to attend,'' said Abdel Aziz el-Nur Ashr, a senior Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) official.

Some commanders from the SLA Unity faction said Khartoum was pursuing a military solution and was not serious about talks.

But the leadership said they would attend.

Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur, SLA founder, said he wanted a strong UN force on the ground before the talks, aimed at bringing those who rejected the 2006 deal on board to negotiate a proper ceasefire.

UN officials say key equipment is still lacking.

REUTERS SYU BST2152

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