Tribal violence has eclipsed rebel activity as the major security threat to Sudan's Darfur, the defence minister said Tuesday, vowing nonetheless to crush the rebels there and in South Kordofan. "The tribal clashes are the biggest challenge and threat to security in Darfur, more than rebel movements," Defence Minister Abdelrahim Mohammed Hussein said in a briefing to parliament. He said tribal unrest has occurred in four of the region's five states.
Non-Arab rebels rose up 10 years ago in Darfur, seeking an end to what they viewed as Arab elites' domination of Sudan's power and wealth. In response, government-backed Janjaweed militiamen shocked the world with atrocities against civilians.
The Hague-based International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Hussein's arrest in March last year on 13 counts of alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.
Analysts say the cash-starved government can no longer control its former Arab tribal allies, whom it armed against the rebellion, and violent competition for resources has intensified.
In the latest tribal fighting, Arab militias used rockets, artillery and heavy machine guns in battle across a wide swathe of southwest Darfur on Sunday, sources in the warring Taisha and Salamat tribes told AFP.
The African Union-UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) said it was "gravely concerned" after receiving reports of violence among Misseriya, Taisha and Salamat tribes in parts of Central Darfur state in recent days.
Darfur's top official, Eltigani Seisi, said in late October that tribal forces have become so strong that they "are now beyond control of the tribal leaders."
He said the government's security forces need to be strengthened, but disarmament of the militias can only come in conjunction with a laying down of arms by the rebel groups.
In his address to parliament, Defence Minister Hussein said his forces were commencing an operation to crush the rebels in Darfur as well as other insurgents in South Kordofan state over the next few months.
"This summer will see an end to the rebellion, and after that stability will return to South Kordofan and Blue Nile," he said.
Darfur rebels are joined in the Sudan Revolutionary Front alliance with insurgents from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), who have been fighting for two years in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
The Revolutionary Front seeks to topple the Khartoum regime and install a government more representative of the country's diversity.
Sudan had long accused South Sudan of backing rebels in the north, but relations between the two sides have improved since a September summit between President Omar al-Bashir and his southern counterpart Salva Kiir.
They agreed, among other measures, to implement a demilitarised border buffer zone designed to prevent cross-border rebel support.
Hussein told legislators that the rebels have 8,000 fighters in South Kordofan, alongside 1,000 from the Revolutionary Front.
Analyst reports issued early this year said there were up to 30,000 or more SPLM-N fighters in South Kordofan, while government forces numbered 40,000-70,000.
Nuba Reports, a website of "citizen reporters" in South Kordofan, reported on November 4 that it had observed both an increase in government aerial bombing and rebel troop movements during October, at the end of the rainy season.
Military helicopter traffic into Khartoum has also been stepped up in recent days, AFP observed.
The government and rebels are both refusing to allow UN workers to vaccinate children against polio in rebel zones of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, UN humanitarian operations director John Ging said Monday.
A broader internationally-backed plan to get food and other aid into the rebel-held areas collapsed last year despite months of talks.
As a result, 800,000 people in the war-zone have had no outside assistance for 18 months, Ging said. In separate comments earlier this year he said people were surviving on "roots and leaves."