New battle of Omdurman: Sudan-Chad war next?

Back in February, rebels in Chad penetrated N’Djamena, the capital, after driving across hundreds of miles of desert from the east in a fleet of armed pick-up trucks. Chad’s government quickly accused Sudan of supporting the operation. On May 10, Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) penetrated Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, after driving across hundreds of miles of desert from the west in a fleet of armed pick-up trucks. Sudan’s government quickly accused Chad of supporting the operation—and broke off diplomatic relations.

Jeffrey Gettleman in a May 12 New York Times headline called the attack “Quixotic,” and said many in Khartoum are asking “What were the rebels thinking?” He notes that even the now co-governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which fought its own 20-year war against Khartoum, condemned the attack. The Chinese agency Xinhua May 11 called the attack “politically suicide” for the JEM. The exile-based opposition Sudan Times May 10 reported that the SPLA’s first vice president Salva Kiir, who is the acting Sudanese president while President Omar al-Bashir is in Saudi Arabia, said the “Darfur issue is a political issue which should be resolved through dialogue.”

The rebels were beaten back in a battle at Omdurman, on the northwest outskirts of Khartoum. The Sudan Times reported May 11 it had been assured by a JEM spokesman via telephone that the organization’s leader Khalil Ibrahim had escaped and is “now with his people in Darfur carrying out his responsibilities of leading the movement.” Al-Arabiya TV broadcasting from Dubai had reported that Ibrahim has been captured. The government has announced a reward of $125,000 for information leading to his capture.

Sudan TV said Ibrahim had been wounded and soldiers are hunting him down in the capital. (ST, May 11) Government troops paraded in Omdurman with the JEM’s captured vehicles, and put captured fighters on TV to publicly confess that they were trained in Chad. (ST, May 11) Chad denied the charges, and protested what it called a “raid” on its Khartoum embassy by Sudanese security forces. (AFP, May 12)

Two days after the Omdurman attack, Hassan Turabi, leader of the opposition Popular Congress Party (PCC), was arrested by the regime in a surprise move. Turabi was detained just an hour after returning from a meeting of his party. “They want to blame the party for what has happened,” said his son Siddig al-Turabi. An Islamist ideologue and brain behind the National Islamic Front coup that brought Omar Bashir to power in 1989, Turabi was imprisoned from 1999-2000 following a bitter power struggle. (New Sudan Vision, Canada, May 11)

The audacious JEM attack also came days after an air crash killed two leading members of the SPLA—presidential advisor on decentralization Justin Yac Arop, and Lt. Gen. Dominic Dim Deng, a minister in the government of Southern Sudan. Authorities say it was accident, but Salva Kiir is calling for an investigation. (New Sudan Vision, May 3) (SPLA leaders are doubtless recalling the death of the movement’s top leader John Garang in a 2005 air crash.)

On May 4, the JEM website asserted that the government of Sudan has contracted 250 Iraqi pilots for aerial bombardment in Darfur. The pilots said to be based at Alfashir. The report claimed that “the last two airplanes shot down by JEM in Elgeneina area were flown by Iraqi pilots.” The report also claimed Sudan is using Ilyushin cargo planes to fly more rockets into Alfashir for use in MIG warplanes based there, and that Sudan has unmanned drones based at Nyala for surveillance of Darfur.

See our last posts on Sudan, Darfur and Chad.

  1. Whither Turabi?
    Turabi has apparently been released, but the fact that he was arrested reveals shifting alliances in the Sudan conflict. The US was pressuring the JEM to accept the (bogus) peace deal offered by Khartoum last year, as other rebel factions in Darfur did. Has JEM, betrayed by Washington and its proxy Chad, now entered an alliance with the hardline Islamist opposition around Turabi? Or is the regime just using the JEM attack as an excuse to scapegoat Turabi? An editorial from Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, May 13:

    Chad-Sudan Standoff
    The arrest — and then release — in Khartoum of opposition Islamist leader Hassan Turabi is a bizarre twist to what has been a bizarre course of events. Saturday’s raid on the Sudanese capital by a Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), was a bolt out the blue. Visibly shocked, the government of President Omar Bashir has taken the view that this could not have happened without help. In accusing both the government of neighboring Chad and Turabi of involvement, it suggests a remarkable conspiracy. The JEM — the most Islamist of all the myriad of Darfur rebel groups —certainly has had links with Turabi in the past and a faction, now split from it, is led by a former member of the republican guard of Chadian President Idriss Deby. Chad denies any involvement although the two countries have a history of interfering in each other.

    This week’s attack, moreover, is a mirror image of a rebel assault on Chad’s capital three months ago, which the Chadians accused Khartoum of sponsoring. One of the great ironies in the present rivalry is that Deby would not be Chadian president but for Bashir. Having been forced to flee Chad, it was with Bashir’s support that he returned in 1990 at the head of an invasion force and captured the capital. The notion that Deby would link up with Islamists to attack the Sudanese is difficult to accept. He banned Islamist movements in Chad in 1996 and he has spent much time of late accusing Bashir of trying to export Islamism to sub-Saharan Africa. Following mediation by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Presidents Deby and Bashir were all smiles at the OIC summit in Dakar after signing a pledge not to support rebel attacks against each other. It seems strange that the Chadian president would renege so soon.

    There are too many instances in Africa, particularly eastern Africa, of governments using rebel groups to destabilize neighbors and fight proxy wars. Whether or not Chadian and Sudanese accusations are true is irrelevant. What is needed is a change of relationship. Sudan’s response will not help that. Breaking off diplomatic relations and threats of retaliation will only worsen the situation. Sudan and Chad need to talk to each other. Sudan is not going to resolve the crisis in Darfur without involving Chad; nor is Chad going to deal with its own rebels without involving Sudan.

    It would be unfortunate if the Darfur rebellion were to be taken over by extremist Islamists. The conflict is not about Islam. Both sides in the dispute are Muslim. It is an issue about ethnic cleansing and human rights. The JEM is already the most ambitious of the many Darfur rebel groups. It has already taken the fight to neighboring Kordofan province, attacked oil fields and threatened to drive foreign oil workers out of the country. If, with its extremist credentials, it were to become the leading Darfur rebel movement, many in the international community would lose interest. The people who would suffer in that situation would be the Darfuris themselves.

  2. Sweeps in Khartoum
    From the Sudan Times, May 12:

    PARIS — A Sudanese rebel leader warned the Sudanese government today to stop the arbitrary arrest of Darfur people in the Sudanese capital following the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) attack.

    The Sudan Human Rights Organization (SHRO) issued a statement on Monday saying that ethnic persecution against Darfuris spread to the capital in the aftermath of the foiled rebel coup.

    SHRO said that the security forces started “to exercise a large-scale racist campaign against all Darfuri… in the National Capital, as part of a retaliation campaign.”

    Abdel-Wahid al-Nur, the leader of a faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) said he received alarming reports about the mass wave of retaliation against Darfuris in Khartoum by the security agents.

    “The Sudanese regime should stop arresting people according to their skin color because this would only deepen the wounds of civilians who moved from Darfur to Khartoum to escape the ongoing repression that started five years ago” Al-Nur said.

    In a report published today Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Sudanese security forces arrested more than 100 people since the rebel attack on Khartoum on May 10 that left dozens of civilians dead or severely injured.

    Al-Nur pointed out that rebel attack against the capital can be traced to the lack of equality among citizens of the same country. He called on Khartoum to “work seriously for peace and endorse the value of equal citizenship rights.”

    The SLM chief also said Khartoum should immediately put an end to the violence against civilians in Darfur by implementing the signed ceasefire accords.

    Abdel-Wahid regretted the death of Sudanese civilians everywhere in the country before saying that “it is a vicious circle started by the government and unless they show seriousness there will be no end to it.”

    International experts also say more than 300,000 were killed and 2 million have been driven from their homes by the conflict in Darfur, a region that is roughly the size of France.