Islamists fleeing advancing French forces in Mali have been spotted in Sudan's troubled Darfur region, a Sudanese rebel commander told AFP on Friday.
"We saw them," said Abdel Wahid Mohammed al-Nur, commander of a Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) faction which is fighting Khartoum's troops in Darfur.
"After they were defeated they withdrew from there and came to make our stronghold, Jebel Marra, as their base," he told AFP.
A regional political expert, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that the fighters had appeared in Sudan's far-west region bordering Libya and Chad.
"Everybody knows that," he said.
Nur claimed that "hundreds" of Malians were in Darfur but the political expert had no figure.
The expert dismissed Nur's claim that the Malians had joined Sudanese forces which have been battling Nur's group and other Darfur rebels for 10 years.
"The fighters from Mali would like to be quiet," the analyst said, adding that they fled to Darfur to recover after suffering heavy losses.
"They are exhausted. They don't want to fight against anybody else," he said. "I heard that most of them are from Ansar Dine group."
Ansar Dine was one of three hardline groups which took control of Mali's desert north last year, sparking regional and international fears of a new haven for extremists in north Africa.
French forces went into action in Mali nearly a month ago as the rebels pushed south, leading to concerns they might try to take the capital Bamako.
Soldiers from Mali, Chad and Niger are backing the 4,000 French troops in the campaign against the Islamists.
Nur said the Malians stand out in Darfur by the way they speak, and their skin colour.
"They're coming at night," he said, adding that their arrival was unforeseen.
"Nobody will expect that they will come to Jebel Marra," a fertile and mountainous area roughly in central Darfur, which is about as large as France.
Sudan's army spokesman could not be reached for comment.
The political expert said the Malians would be lying low in areas which are relatively unpopulated, and they are likely to stay "a long while."
Others have sought refuge in Libya and northern Niger, he said, expressing concern that more might end up in Sudan "because they don't know where to go."
In October, Sudanese were among hundreds of jihadists who reportedly poured into Mali's north to help the Islamists try to hang on to seized territory.
Nur's faction belongs to the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a coalition of rebels from Darfur and two other Sudanese states, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
The Front says it is fighting to topple the Arab-dominated Islamist regime of President Omar al-Bashir and install a system more responsive to Sudan's ethnic and religious diversity.