Sudan's military says it seized the South Darfur town of Muhajiriya after three days of aerial bombings and a ground assault yesterday. Rebels of the Justice and Equality Movement rebel group (JEM), who had captured the town three weeks ago, pulled their forces back some 50-60 kilometers away, while a UNAMID UN peacekeeping force, based just north of Muhajiriya, has vowed to stay put in order to protect thousands of civilians and townspeople who have encamped around their UN base for protection. Executive Director John Norris of the Washington, DC-based advocacy group the Enough Project, says the attack has its constraints because of possible international arrest warrants against Sudan's president Omar Hassan al-Bashir. But he notes that the current fighting is also Khartoum's way of testing the resolve of US President Barack Obama's administration.
"It's clear that the Sudanese government right now is testing the fence, as it were. Obviously, President Bashir is increasingly concerned by what looks very likely like it will be an arrest warrant handed down by the International Criminal Court (ICC), probably as soon as this month. And I think that they are hoping to escalate pressure, not only on the United States, but on the international community, to strengthen their hand and make the at least theoretical case that perhaps, an arrest warrant should be deferred," he said.
Since 2003, the UN estimates that Sudan's government-sponsored conflict has caused more than 200-thousand civilian deaths. During his election campaign, candidate Obama pledged to take a strong stand to get Khartoum to stop the killings, which the US government has called genocidal. But after only 15 days in power, the Obama administration has yet to appoint a special representative to mediate the crisis. On Tuesday during a meeting with reporters, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice voiced "grave concern" about Sudan's 28-bomb aerial bombardment of the South Darfur town, but the Enough Project's John Norris says that concerned Americans are looking for stronger pressure from Washington.
"Certainly, I think it's important that the United States decide early on how far it's willing to pursue this. Certainly, it's an administration…the President has had very tough words on Darfur. Susan Rice, Secretary of State Clinton all have spoken passionately and eloquently about the need to do something and respond forcefully. And there are a lot of policy options that can be pursued. But I think that it's important that if the administration goes down that road, it's willing to follow that confrontation to a logical conclusion if it's willing to do so," he noted.
Sudan's Justice and Equality Movement wrested control over Muhajiriya in January from a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) headed by Minni Minawi, the only Darfur rebel leader to sign a peace deal with the government. JEM commanders have said they retreated from the town this week in order to prevent added civilian deaths from the fighting. John Norris says it will take more time to decipher whether the Sudanese army intends to consolidate its gains in Muhajiriya and extend attacks across extensive communities in South Darfur.
"Obviously, the reports on the ground are somewhat conflicting whether the attacks are still continuing, if the rebels have left or not, where exactly bombing is being targeted. I know the Sudanese have also pushed to try to keep the UN presence of the 193 (UNAMID) troops that are there now restricted to a very small one kilometer area because I think as much as the Sudanese government is willing to inflict pain and torment on Darfuri civilians, they probably are somewhat nervous if their attacks land directly on UN troops. That would be seen as a huge provocation and a direct escalation of the conflict to a degree to which I think even Khartoum is uncomfortable with right now," he said.
On the final day of the African Union summit in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, newly installed AU Chairman, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi, yesterday told reporters that he would assume responsibility for solving the Darfur conflict. Norris dismissed the Gaddhafi pledge as "an embarrassment for the AU." He says that too much history of destabilizing the continent has tarnished the Libyan leader's credibility.
"I think his comments at the summit in
terms of speaking out against democracy in Africa, making a rather 'loopy' case
for the United States of Africa, which would coalesce under what appears to be
Libyan leadership, his long history of adventurism and interventionism in the
region, everything from training (ousted Liberian President) Charles Taylor
when he was a young rebel to arming Chadian rebels and encouraging Libyan Arabs
to resettle in Darfur, you know, he's not a credible player on the scene. But certainly, given his influence and his
oil money, he can make it more difficult for serious negotiators to get serious
work done," he explained.