KHARTOUM, Sudan – Sudanese army troops and rebels clashed in southern Darfur on Thursday, leaving five rebels and two soldiers dead, said government officials.
The fighting near the town of Muhajeria comes a week after a major rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, seized control of the town of 30,000.
The town was previously controlled by the Sudan Liberation Movement, whose leader, Minni Minawi, signed a peace deal with the government and is now a presidential adviser.
The fall of Minawi's stronghold further weakens the former rebel, whose position within Darfur was undermined after he signed the 2006 peace deal alone. Other rebel groups refused to join, saying the agreement didn't meet their demands.
The attack also highlights the growing strength of JEM. The group has become the most powerful rebel group in Darfur and posed a serious challenge to the government last year when hundreds of its fighters drove from the remote region to attack the outskirts of the capital, Khartoum.
The conflict in Darfur has pitted the Arab-led Khartoum government against mainly ethnic African rebels who rose up in 2003, complaining of discrimination. Khartoum is accused of unleashing Arab militias, who have waged a campaign of violence against ethnic African civilians, including killings and rapes.
U.N. officials say up to 300,000 people have been killed in the conflict and more than 2.5 million displaced. The government says the figures are exaggerated.
The U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur has confirmed that JEM took control of Muhajeria and said Minawi's forces were preparing for a counterattack.
The force has expressed concern about the fighting because it endangered civilian lives. One aid office was destroyed by the fighting, aid workers were evacuated and six Darfurians injured, UNAMID said in a recent statement.
Thursday's clashes in South Darfur took place as part of government efforts to secure the province against further JEM advancement, Brig. Gen. Osman al-Aghbash told the government-linked Sudan Media Center. He said one soldier was also injured in the clashes and three rebel vehicles were confiscated, according to the report, which appeared on the agency's Web site.
Al-Aghbash did not say which group the dead rebels were from. A JEM official, Ahmed Tugod, denied they were from his group.
Tugod said government planes bombed areas around Muhajeria late Thursday. There was no independent confirmation of the bombings.
The governor of South Darfur, Ali Mahmoud, told Sudan Media Center that army troops were preparing to reclaim Muhajeria from JEM.
UNAMID has criticized the violence, saying it jeopardizes prospects for successful peace negotiations.