KHARTOUM, Sudan — Heavy fighting in Sudan's war-torn border region saw rebels drive the army back at a key garrison town, one of its leaders said Monday, as the United Nations warned the conflict could jeopardise peace between north and south.
"Aerial bombardments, which are mainly targeting the civilian population in Blue Nile and South Kordofan, are continuing," Yasser Arman, the secretary general of the beleaguered northern branch of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM-N), told AFP by telephone from London.
"Yesterday (Sunday), the SPLM was attacked by the Sudanese armed forces near Talodi. There was heavy fighting and the army was repulsed by the SPLM-North.
"As a result, the government lost three outposts at their garrison in Talodi. Our forces are now besieging Talodi," Arman said.
Army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad denied there had been serious fighting in Talodi, saying only that troops retaliated after the SPLM tried to "disrupt the security" in the area.
The South Kordofan conflict between the Sudanese army and militiamen who fought with the SPLA, the former rebel army of the south, during their decades-long war with Khartoum, erupted in June a month before southern independence.
The fighting, apparently triggered by the army's insistence on disarming SPLM elements, spilled into nearby Blue Nile state this month, as the government moved to assert its authority within its new borders following South Sudan's formal secession.
The UN human rights envoy for Sudan said the violence in the country's border region, and particularly in Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, threatened peace between Khartoum and Juba.
"Sudan and South Sudan cannot be at peace if the border areas between the two countries remain mired in armed conflict," Mohamed Chande Othman told the UN Human Rights Council.
The fighting in Blue Nile prompted President Omar al-Bashir to declare a state of emergency there and sack the elected governor, Malik Agar, who is also the SPLM-North's chairman.
The party, an offshoot of the ruling party in the south, was shut down shortly afterwards and dozens of its members arrested.
On Monday, three SPLM-N MPs announced their resignation from parliament in a statement accusing the government of rights abuses.
They accused Khartoum of carrying out ethnic cleansing against South Kordofan's indigenous Nuba peoples since June, which they claim have led to the deaths of 2,132 people.
An SPLM-North source in South Kordofan said earlier that the army had bombed a village in Buram county on Thursday, killing three teenage girls.
It has been virtually impossible to get independent information on the border conflict, with the UN peacekeeping mission disbanded in July and international NGOs denied access to the two affected states.
The United Nations said on Sunday that the number of people fleeing from South Kordofan's Nuba Mountains region across the border into Unity state surged last week, to about 500 a day compared with 100 a day in August.
On Monday, Sudan's Vice President Ali Osman Taha flew to the South Kordofan capital Kadugli for the opening of the state assembly, where more than 50 members of the SPLM-North were absent.
He dismissed claims that the government was targeting the Nuba, and urged the rebels to lay down their weapons and the absent members to return.
"Everyone who puts down their weapons and comes back will be welcome. And everyone who comes back to his seat in this parliament will be welcome," Taha said in a speech broadcast live on state television.
"But those who insist on imposing their agenda by fighting... the government forces are ready for them."
The Sudanese government has repeatedly vowed to crush the rebels within its new borders.
But while the SPLM-North has been chased out of its offices, the fighting continues in its heartlands, and the movement appears undeterred from its long-term goal.
"The problem of the centre, the problem of Khartoum, this is the fundamental problem in Sudan. (The government) will either change or they will be changed," Yasser Arman said.
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