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JEM's surprise push was 1st 'joint force' op

03 May 2013, 15:11

Khartoum - Sudanese insurgents have carried out their first combined attack, a surprise push into a strategic and previously peaceful region, but analysts doubt the rebels' readiness to take Khartoum by force

On Saturday, the Sudan Revolutionary Front rebel coalition swept through Umm Rawaba, the second-largest town in North Kordofan state, during coordinated attacks on several nearby areas.

"In the past two months we start to reorganise ourselves as a joint troops, a joint force," said Gibril Adam Bilal, spokesperson for Darfur's Justice and Equality Movement (Jem), one of four main groups in the coalition.

"Our attack to Umm Rawaba is the first time we had a joint force working together to implement our goals, and we think we succeeded."

The United Nations, African Union and European Union expressed shock, concern and condemnation at the attacks, which came the same week as the first direct peace talks in two years between Khartoum and rebels from South Kordofan state who belong to the SRF. Those talks were inconclusive.

Analysts said there had been rumours of an attack, though the specific target may not have been clear, and residents complained that Umm Rawaba was undefended.

"It was really a big shock" for the authorities, said a leader of the ethnic Nuba community native to South Kordofan, where rebels have been fighting since 2011.

"I think these people want to tell the government, 'we're here and we can do it.'"

Magdi El Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, wrote in his blog that the attack was an "embarrassment... a humiliating surprise," comparable only to JEM's 2008 attack on Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman. 

Jem's strength

The Umm Rawaba death toll was unclear but included some policemen, according to residents and officials, who added that the power station and other facilities were damaged and looted.

Rebels said they blocked a main road that links Umm Rawaba to Darfur in the west and the capital Khartoum 500km northeast.

The operation was carried out by Jem, two factions of the Darfur-based Sudan Liberation Army and the Sudan People's Liberation Army-North from South Kordofan, SRF said.

Founded in late 2011, the rebel coalition signed with members of opposition parties in January a pact to overthrow by armed and peaceful means the 24-year Arab-dominated regime of President Omar al-Bashir.

Some SRF member groups fought together before, but a Sudan analyst confirmed that Umm Rawaba was their inaugural joint-force offensive, despite most of the attackers belonging to Jem.

In separate reports this year, analysts from the International Crisis Group and the Small Arms Survey both said Jem's strength in South Kordofan had grown to a reported 700-1 000 men with about 120 vehicles.

Jem has supported SPLA-N in South Kordofan since shortly after war began in that state, the studies said.

Bilal, Jem's spokesperson, claimed the SRF combined force has more than 250 vehicles.

On Friday, insurgents still held one of their targets, Abu Kershola, in the far north of South Kordofan, said Arnu Ngutulu Lodi, rebel spokesman in that area.

Ethnic tensions

Aid agencies say about 20 000 people have fled Abu Kershola.

"The whole international community should class them as terrorists," senior ruling party official Rabbie Abdelatti Ebaid said of the attackers.

The Nuba leader said all of Sudan "is crying because of what happened in Umm Rawaba. Of course, it's not right".

"People are worried," he added. "I think worried of the war being close to them."

But he asked why there has not been an equal reaction for the people of the Nuba Mountains "being bombed for the past two years" by government forces in South Kordofan.

Gizouli said "it would not come as a surprise" if another SRF strike did bring the war to Khartoum.

"Scoring a clear victory or controlling territory is another issue altogether of course," he told AFP.

The Small Arms Survey, in its March report, said the possibility of a major SRF offensive to topple the regime "seems quite remote."

More worrying, analysts say, is that North Kordofan could now face the ethnic tensions seen during Darfur's decade-long war and the more recent conflict in South Kordofan.



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