Scorched-earth strategy returns to Darfur
By Lydia Polgreen
Sunday, March 2, 2008
SULEIA, Sudan: The janjaweed are back.
They came to this dusty town in the Darfur region of Sudan on horses and camels on market day. Almost everybody was in the bustling square. At the first clatter of automatic gunfire, everyone ran.
The militiamen laid waste to the town - burning huts, pillaging shops, carrying off any loot they could find and shooting anyone who stood in their way, residents said. Asha Abdullah Abakar, wizened and twice widowed, described how she hid in a hut, praying it would not be set on fire."I have never been so afraid," she said.
The attacks by the janjaweed, the fearsome Arab militias that came three weeks ago, accompanied by government bombers and followed by the Sudanese Army, were a return to the tactics that terrorized Darfur in the early, bloodiest stages of the conflict.
Such brutal, three-pronged attacks of this scale involving close coordination of air power, army troops and Arab militias in areas where rebel troops have been have rarely been seen in the past few years, when the violence became more episodic and fractured. But they resemble the kinds of campaigns that first captured the world's attention and prompted the Bush administration to call the violence in Darfur genocide.
Aid workers, diplomats and analysts say the return of such attacks is an ominous sign that the fighting in Darfur, which has grown more complex and confusing as it has stretched on for five years, is entering a new and deadly phase one in which the government is planning a scorched-earth campaign against the rebel groups fighting here as efforts to find a negotiated peace founder.
The government has carried out a series of coordinated attacks in recent weeks, using air power, ground forces and, according to witnesses and peacekeepers stationed in the area, the janjaweed, as their allied militias are known here. The offensives are aimed at retaking ground gained by a rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, which has been gathering strength and has close ties to the government of neighboring
Government officials say that their strikes have been carefully devised to hit the rebels, not civilians, and that Arab militias were not involved. They said they had been motivated to evict the rebels in part because the rebels were hijacking aid vehicles and preventing peacekeepers from patrolling the area, events that some aid workers and
"We are simply trying to secure the area from the bandits that are troubling civilians in the area," said Ali al-Sadig, a government spokesman. "There is nothing abnormal about a government doing this."
But residents of the towns said the rebels had been long gone by the time the government attacks began, leaving defenseless civilians to flee bombs and guns. In interviews, survivors of the attacks described a series of assaults that had left dozens dead, turned large sections of towns into hut-shaped circles of ash and scattered tens of thousands of fearful residents, including hundreds of children, who fled classrooms in the middle of a school day and have not been reunited with their families.