CAIRO, Egypt – Sudanese government planes have bombed a rebel-held town in southern Darfur, killing a child, burning homes and sending civilians fleeing to a peacekeepers compound, the peacekeeping force said Sunday.
The bombing on Saturday destroyed eight homes in the town of Muhajeria, home to 30,000 residents, many of whom were displaced from previous fighting, said Noureddine Mezni, spokesman for the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur.
The government has vowed to take control of the town from Darfur's most powerful rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement. The rebels seized control of Muhajeria earlier this month from another rebel group that has signed a peace deal with Sudan's government.
The conflict in Darfur has pitted the Arab-led government in Khartoum against mainly ethnic African rebels who rose up in 2003 complaining of discrimination. Khartoum is accused of unleashing Arab militias to wage a campaign of violence on 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 Sudanese government says the figures are exaggerated.
In Saturday's attack, government aircraft dropped two bombs on the town's western edge, near a settlement for refugees and a base for the UNAMID peacekeeping mission, Mezni said. The bombardment set homes on fire, and a child died in one of the blazes, Mezni said. Another civilian was seriously injured, but the peacekeepers did not have a final casualty count.
"About 1,000 civilians were reported to have fled their homes and are taking shelter around the UNAMID camp and slept in the open fearing further attacks," Mezni said in a telephone interview from Sudan.
Government military officials were not available for comment Sunday.
The rebel group in control of the town said government fighter jets continued to fly over Muhajeria on Sunday. A spokesman for the rebels, Abu Bakr Hamed, put the number of dead from Saturday's attack at three, and said six others were injured. None of them were rebels, he said.
He said the Justice and Equality Movement would not relinquish control of the town.
"JEM will not leave Muhajeria. We are expecting battles," he said, noting that the group had information that the government has mobilized ground troops.
The group has emerged as the most effective military challenge to President Omar al-Bashir's government. Last year, its fighters drove from the remote western region to attack the outskirts of the capital.
The group seized control of Muhajeria Jan. 15-16 from a faction of the splintered Sudan Liberation Movement that signed a peace deal with the government in 2006. That faction's leader, Minni Minawi, has been appointed a presidential adviser.
Darfur's many rebel groups and government troops have been vying for control in the vast region before an expected decision by the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court on whether to issue an arrest warrant for President al-Bashir.
A prosecutor for the court has accused the president of orchestrating a genocide campaign in Darfur.
A Justice and Equality Movement official said Sunday that the group would help arrest al-Bashir if a warrant is issued.
"We, as a responsible movement, will try by all means to help the ICC and international community by arresting al-Bashir and handing him over" if he refuses to cooperate with the court, said Tahir al-Faki, a JEM official in exile in Britain.