June 6, 2013 (NAIROBI) – There are calls for the UN Security Council to take action, amid claims that a top Sudanese military commander wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) led or participated in the April attacks on ethnic Salamat communities in Central Darfur.
Witnesses cited by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a statement released on Monday said that the attackers appeared to include government forces using state-issued weapons and equipment.
In 2007, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Ali Kushayb, also known as Ali Mohammed Ali, for crimes against humanity and war crimes in West Darfur in 2003 and 2004.
The former militia leader, who now serves in a high-ranking post with the auxiliary Central Reserve Police, was detained by Sudanese authorities that same year on unrelated charges and again in 2008, but later released him due to a lack of evidence.
AT THE SCENE
“Witnesses place Ali Kushayb at the scene of recent killing, burning, and looting in Darfur,” said HRW’s Africa director Daniel Bekele “This shows that allowing fugitives to remain at liberty can have a devastating price”, he added.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) was also briefed on the matter by the ICC prosecutor this Wednesday.
HRW has urged the UNSC to press Sudan to surrender Kushayb to the ICC immediately.
Heavily armed members of the Misseriya and Ta’isha ethnic groups have been carrying out periodic attacks on ethnic Salamat communities in and around Um Dukhun, Central Darfur since early April.
More than 100 civilians were killed and scores more were injured in the clashes, which also resulted in the burning and destruction of property and the displacement of tens of thousands of people.
Witnesses have placed Kushayb at the scene of an attack on the town of Abu Jeradil, 30kms south of Um Dukhun, on 8 April, where he was allegedly seen riding in a government vehicle.
According to eyewitness accounts, large numbers of heavily armed men, most wearing khaki uniforms, arrived in waves, first on foot and then in vehicles, before opening fire indiscriminately, burning homes and shops, stealing livestock, and looting goods.
The attackers were reportedly travelling in a convoy of government land cruisers and were armed with rockets, anti-aircraft weapons; rocket propelled grenades, and other weapons, although HRW was not able to independently verify the reports.
“The [attackers] were shooting at shops and people. We saw houses and fields on fire as we fled,” an elderly man from Abu Jeradil told HRW.
Salamat men told HRW they fought back using rifles but were far outnumbered and outgunned by the attackers, whom they identified as members of the Central Reserve Police, Border Intelligence and militia.
More than 30,000 refugees, mostly women and children, crossed into Chad following the outbreak of violence, where conditions remain dire amid the onset of the rainy season.
Although most of the displaced people are of Salamat ethnicity, other non-Arab ethnic groups have also been caught up in the fighting.
“They didn’t see any difference between communities; they just wanted people to leave. They stole our cows and burned our crops and took our clothes from our house and burned the house down. We saw them”, one Tama woman from Abu Jeradil told HRW.
Sudan’s government has repeatedly downplayed its responsibility for the violence in Darfur, saying it does not have the capacity to control inter-ethnic fighting.
Conflict over land and other resources has intensified in 2013, displacing more than 170,000 people in Darfur and Chad, according to UN estimates.
A long-running land dispute between the Salamat and Ta’isha ethnic groups is blamed for the recent fighting, with tensions flaring between the two groups in 2012 when the government created the state of Central Darfur, a move that appeared to consolidate Salamat power.
In late January, Kushayb, who is part Ta’isha, gave an incendiary speech at a market in South Darfur, accompanied by local government officials and ethnic leaders, stating that he was not just a Central Reserve Police commander but also a ‘janjaweed’ commander, calling on Ta’isha fighters to join with him to protect their land.
HRW research found that the Sudanese government had facilitated attacks by the state security forces, taking no steps to protect civilians from the fighting.
The reason for the government’s support for one side in the fighting remains unclear, although observers consulted by HRW suggest that Sudanese leaders wanted to appease ethnic Misseriya and Ta’isha men who fought in the pro-government ‘janjaweed’ militia forces during the Darfur conflict in the mid-2000s, and consider the Salamat to be Chadian nationals.
Salamat relations with neighbouring Misseriya Arabs deteriorated sharply in early 2013 following a series of armed robberies allegedly carried out by the Misseriya on Salamat youth.
The Ta’isha and Misseriya joined forces and attacked dozens of Salamat towns and villages starting on 5 April at Biltebe, with attackers burning property in some 24 villages, according to estimates by UN agencies in the area.