In Sudan's Kordofan, Rapid Support troops dig in

AFP , Wednesday 21 May 2014

Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) personnel celebrate after recapturing the Daldako area, east of Kadogli May 20, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

The rains have already come to Daldako, where Sudan's Rapid Support Forces are digging in.

Troops from the controversial unit are on alert for rebel retaliation, two days after they say they seized this strategic area about 20 kilometres (12 miles) northeast of South Kordofan's state capital Kadugli.

They are digging trench defences among the trees and shrubs turned green from seasonal rains which have just begun.

Sudan's National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) on Tuesday allowed journalists a rare visit to South Kordofan, where access is tightly restricted.

Ethnic minority rebels have been fighting government forces for three years in a largely-hidden war which the UN says has affected more than one million people.

The visit to an area "liberated" by Rapid Support follows accusations that its sister unit in Sudan's western region of Darfur had abused civilians.

In an April report, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Rapid Support elements had attacked and burned villages in Darfur.

After Sudanese opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi reportedly made similar comments, NISS agents arrested him on Saturday for alleged treason.

Distinct from the regular Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), NISS has command over Rapid Support.

Mahdi's arrest was a power play by elements of the security service, said Magdi El Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute.

The NISS, as an institution, seems to fear being sacrificed in any future political arrangements, he said.

Mahdi's arrest undermined a dialogue between the ruling National Congress and other political parties aimed at ending Sudan's multiple wars, economic crisis and political divisions.

"In presenting itself as a fighting force capable of challenging insurgencies, the NISS is obviously boosting its stature with the ambition to achieve the kind of political recognition that the SAF continues to enjoy," Gizouli said.

More than 1,000 troops, many of them in light brown NISS combat uniforms, are spread across a three-kilometre (two-mile) zone in Daldako with tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft guns and recoilless rifles.

"This is a strategic area for the rebels and it was the main threat to Kadugli's security," said Hussein Jeber Al-Dar, Daldako field commander of Rapid Support-2, as the South Kordofan unit is called.

"It was also important because all the supplies for the rebels came through this area. By capturing it, we stopped that," Dar said.

Daldako and Miri Bara, just west of the state capital, had been used by the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) to launch periodic bombardments of the city, some of them deadly, troops said.

SAF took control of Mira Bara last Thursday.

"Now there is no shelling of Kadugli town," South Kordofan governor Adam Al-Faki said.

That doesn't mean Kadugli is quiet.

An AFP reporter heard the thump of artillery and whoosh of rockets repeatedly fired out from Kadugli by government forces on Monday night.

A week of operations cost Rapid Support-2 and SAF units 78 "martyrs", Faki said, giving a rare official account of losses among government forces.

Fighting has intensified in the region, leading to "a number of civilian casualties and repeated massive civilian displacement", the United Nations said last Thursday.

The government offensive comes during a halt in peace talks tentatively set to resume in late May.

In a brief email, SPLM-N spokesman Arnu Ngutulu Lodi said fighting was continuing in the Daldako area.

Government forces made two abortive efforts to take Daldako in late 2012.

Most members of the first Rapid Support Forces, established several months ago, were from Darfur's Arab tribes but Rapid Support-2 is comprised of people from the Kordofan region, officials said.

"They didn't come from Mali or Niger, as the allegations claim," their commander Abdelhafiz Ahmed Al-Bashir said.

Governor Faki said the troops finished training and returned 10 days ago to Kadugli before starting the Daldako operation, their first.

The 90-minute journey on a dirt road from Kadugli to Daldako passes through an area devoid of people, except for troops at two sprawling SAF camps.

In the state capital, gun-mounted pickup trucks from SAF and other forces guard government buildings.

But the main market stays open into the night, three-wheeled taxis and minibuses ply the streets, and residents chat in front of their homes.

They voiced no complaints about the Rapid Support-2 troops who had briefly passed through.

It is a town that has grown used to war. But enough is enough.

"We are fed up with war. We want peace," said one resident, Adam Khamis, 53.

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