Darfur rebels claim victory after government "attack"

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KHARTOUM, Nov 20 (Reuters) Darfur rebels said today they had seized a Sudanese army base after repelling an attack by government soldiers.

A spokesman for Sudan's armed forces dismissed the report as ''baseless''.

If true, it would be the first serious clash reported between insurgents and government troops in Darfur for almost four weeks, and a serious blow to ongoing peace talks.

It would also be in breach of a government ceasefire in the war-torn western region.

The United Resistance Front (URF), a newly formed umbrella group for five rebel factions, said government forces entered territory controlled by its troops in north Darfur at 4 p.m.

1830 IST yesterday.

''They opened fire. They started the attack on us. They were a force of Sudanese army and Janjaweed (government-aligned militias),'' said URF spokesman Hassan Khamis.

Khamis said URF troops fought back and forced the army to retreat to one of its bases in the settlement of Foro, north of the town of Kutum.

''We defeated them and we now have control of the base,'' said Khamis, adding that the URF had taken a number of army prisoners. He said the rebel group would release details of the number of people killed or injured in the attack later today.

Noureddine Mezni, spokesman for African Union peacekeepers who have a base in Kutum, told Reuters he had not received any reports of the incident but would check with officers on the ground.

A spokesman for Sudan's armed forces, speaking on condition on anonymity, said there was no truth to the reports.

Khamis said the government troops had been moving into URF-controlled land in response to a belligerent speech from Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir calling for the build up of northern militias.

''This is very dangerous for the peace negotiations,'' said Khamis. ''(Khartoum) has started to re-group the militias. They are moving in Darfur. They are trying to move their army in the area.'' The URF was formed out of five Darfur rebel factions currently meeting in south Sudan's capital Juba - two splinter groups from the Sudan Liberation Army, one breakaway group from the Justice and Equality Movement, the NMRD and the United Revolutionary Forces Front.

Most of Darfur rebel groups have boycotted peace talks brokered by the UN and the African Union in the Libyan city of Sirte, claiming they need more time to prepare. Many chose to meet instead in Juba to try and hammer out a common negotiating position for any future talks.

Sudan's government announced a ceasefire in Darfur at the start of the Sirte talks. But rebels claimed Sudanese government planes bombed their positions close to the border with Chad on the first day of the negotiations. Sudan's armed forces also denied carrying out that attack.

More than four years of violence in Darfur had killed more than 200,000 people and driven 2.5 million from their homes, according to international experts. Khartoum says the international media has exaggerated the conflict and only 9,000 have died.

REUTERS PD ND1652

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