KHARTOUM, Sudan – Sudan severed relations with Chad on Sunday, accusing it of supporting fighters who assaulted the capital the night before and warned that a top Darfur rebel leader was hiding somewhere in the city.
A curfew was lifted in Khartoum but remained in effect in the capital's twin city of Omdurman, where rebels were still loose, state-run radio quoted police Maj. Gen. Mohamed Abdul-Majeed as saying.
The surprise assault late Saturday was the closest Darfur rebels have ever come to Sudan's seat of government, hundreds of kilometers (miles) from their bases in the far west of the country.
The government issued several statements claiming to have crushed the rebels and paraded images of captured and bloodied fighters on television.
"I would like to assure people that everything is now under control, the rebel forces have been totally destroyed," said Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in a televised address Sunday, wearing military fatigues.
"These forces come from Chad who trained them ... we hold the Chadian regime fully responsible for what happened," he said. "We have no choice but to sever relations."
Al-Bashir said he reserved the right to retaliate against the "outlaw regime," raising the specter of a border war between the two countries who have long traded accusations over support for each others' rebels.
The Interior Ministry called on people in Khartoum and Omdurman to remain inside while it searched for "infiltrators" — rebels who had doffed their uniforms in the fighting to hide among the people.
"Security forces need more time to provide full protection for the people and for their property," said the ministry statement.
"Corpses of killed rebels and arms and explosives are still being removed," Abdul-Majeed said. Some rebels are still operating in Omdurman, he told the city's government-run radio.
Extra checkpoints were still in place Sunday throughout Khartoum, and an Associated Press reporter saw at least three rebels being arrested in a northern section of the city. Traffic was very light, with residents scared to emerge from their homes.
State television for the first time ever broadcast the picture of Khalil Ibrahim, leader of Darfur's Justice and Equality Movement, which carried out the assault, asking on citizens to call a special hotline if they saw him because he was hiding somewhere in Omdurman. The government later announced a reward for information leading to his capture.
The JEM has become one of the most effective rebel movements in Darfur, where ethnic Africans took up arms against the government in 2003 to protest discrimination. In the last year it has expanded its operations into the neighboring province of Kordofan, even attacking oil installations.
Saturday night's assault, however, was the first time they had made it anywhere near the capital.
While the rebels declared the assault a success, the government was quick to describe it as a disaster for the rebels, displaying prisoners and captured vehicles on television.
"This attempt was a foolish act and those who carried it out did not take into account the negative consequences — the attempt was based on lies and disinformation," said military spokesman Brig. Gen. Osman al-Agbash.
With just a few thousand members, JEM is outnumbered and far less equipped than Sudan's military, which believed to be more than 100,000-strong. Yet the group presents the most prominent military challenge to the Sudanese government in Darfur.
The assault puts greater pressure on the Sudanese government to deal with the festering situation in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been chased from their homes. Many of the worst atrocities in the war have been blamed on the janjaweed militia of Arab nomads allied with the government.
Attempts to revive peace talks between Sudan and rebel groups have failed to stem the violence. Rebel groups accuse the Khartoum regime of stonewalling the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force that would try to establish security before peace talks.
The instability on Sudan's western border has spilled over into neighboring Chad, with armed groups and refugees crossing the remote border on a regular basis and destabilizing both countries and straining relations.
"These forces are Chadian forces originally, they moved from there led by Khalil Ibrahim who is an agent of the Chadian regime. It is a Chadian attack," al-Bashir said Sunday morning.
Chadian Communications Minister Mahamat Hissene told the AP in the Chadian capital N'Djamena that he hoped Sudan would "regain its cool" so that the two countries could resume "friendly and fraternal relations."
Hissene said Chad would recall its diplomats from Khartoum as well, after Sudan's decision to sever relations and after uniformed gunmen, likely Sudanese soldiers, broke into the Chadian Embassy and stole materials. He did not elaborate.
Chad has also accused Sudanese authorities of arming rebels who launched a failed assault on N'Djamena in February. The rebels reached the gate of the presidential palace, but fled toward Sudan after Chad's army repelled them in fighting that left hundreds dead.
Though the two countries signed a peace agreement in March promising to prevent armed groups from operating along each other's shared borders, the accusations have continued unabated.