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Darfur Rebels Claim Downing Sudanese Armed Forces Helicopter

Rebels in Sudan's embattled Darfur region say they have shot down a Sudan Armed Forces helicopter, which had attacked their positions -- capturing two Sudanese soldiers. From Khartoum, Noel King reports the fighting comes as rebels in Darfur meet in an attempt to unify various factions.

For several months, rebels in Darfur have attempted to hold talks aimed at reuniting splintered factions.

Observers say a united rebel front will be easier to negotiate with, rather than attempting to deal with the dozen or more rebel factions on the ground in Darfur.

But rebels charge the Sudan government has repeatedly bombed their meetings, despite vowing to give the rebels time to negotiate.

Sudan Liberation Army Commander Ibrahim al-Hilu spoke to VOA by phone from Darfur.

He told VOA that the SLA has captured a Sudanese Air force pilot and another soldier, who has not yet been identified.

"Yesterday the government air force attacked al Hashaba area with helicopters. Our forces dealt with them and we captured Mouawiya Hussein Mohammed (allegedly the pilot)," al-Hilu said.

A Sudan Armed Forces spokesman denies knowledge of the incident.

Sawarmy Khalid tells VOA the army lost contact with a helicopter, Sunday, after pilots reported the aircraft would make an emergency landing in north Darfur.

He says the helicopter was merely on a reconnaissance flight and was not bombing rebel positions.

The Darfur rebels have been trying to unite since last year.

The African Union mission monitoring Darfur and with other international observers have pushed the rebels to unify their position.

Only one faction of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army signed on to last year's peace accord with the government of Sudan.

Other factions said the deal did not meet their demands of wealth and power sharing and splintered even further, in the wake of the accord.

The myriad of factions have contributed to chaotic violence in the region, where an estimated 200-thousand people have died and some two-and-a-half-million others have been made homeless, during four years of fighting.