There has been a sharp rise in armed attacks in Sudan's western Darfur region, less than a week after a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and less than a month after the government and rebel groups agreed to enter another round of peace talks.
Rebels say government troops, backed by attack helicopters have raided four villages in Sudan's Darfur region since Friday. The attacks shattered a pledge by the government not to launch air attacks in the region.
Sudan's government says the violence was provoked when rebels attacked armed guards for a civilian convoy on a road that connects El Fasher and Nyala, Darfur's northern and southern capitals.
On Monday, at least seven civilians were killed and another 10 wounded in attacks by government forces. In a separate incident, a Sudanese M-17 helicopter crashed in southern Darfur, killing all 19 people on board, according to official Sudanese military statements.
A top official with Darfur's largest rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement says fighters in Darfur are on high alert. Adam Shogar says Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir plans to visit El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state, later this week.
"Bashir is visiting next tomorrow [Thursday] El Fasher, so they are going to secure the area. Because of that, they are now maneuvering in the area to clear the area of any presence or the movement of troops," he said. "There is an attack on our positions in the Sheng al-Tobei area, an attack with about 100 vehicles from the government troops and mostly air force attacks."
But the latest violence ends several months of relative calm, as the Khartoum government and Darfur's two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement, are set to begin new peace talks in August.
Mr. Shogar says he hopes the talks yield a peace deal similar to the one signed in Naivasha, Kenya, between the Khartoum government and southern Sudan's main rebel group, which ended the country's 22-year civil war.
But the recent attacks have escalated tensions in Darfur and are dimming the prospects for a peace agreement anytime soon. Mr. Shogar, speaking by satellite phone from N'djamena in Chad, is more preoccupied with military developments.
"We are waiting to see what will happen in the coming 24 hours," he said. "If they never withdraw from that area, we will have to defend ourselves and retaliate."
Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with President Bashir in Khartoum. She urged Sudan to stop what she sees as genocide in Darfur.
Since the conflict started more than two years ago, fighting between government forces and rebel troops has left tens of thousands of people dead and driven two million people from their villages.