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Darfur rebel boss says 31 seized by 'mistake'

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A rebel commander in Sudan's Darfur region said on Monday that his forces made a "mistake" by seizing 31 displaced people travelling under peacekeeper escort to a government refugee conference.

The abduction highlights insecurity for 1.4 million Darfuris uprooted by the region's decade-old conflict, and whose future is under discussion at the conference which ends Tuesday.

"One of the commanders made a big mistake," Abdel Wahid Mohammed al-Nur, who heads a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army, told AFP.

"I gave (an) order to release these people, civilians, immediately."

But the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) said it had not been able to contact the victims to verify whether they had been freed.

"A convoy of three commercial buses carrying 31 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and escorted by UNAMID peacekeepers was stopped by a large unidentified armed group in military uniforms and seven jeep-mounted guns," UNAMID spokeswoman Aicha Elbasri said.

"Despite UNAMID opposition, the armed group forced the IDPs to an unknown location," said Elbasri, condemning the action of the gunmen.

Critics have previously accused UNAMID of not being aggressive enough in fulfilling its core mandate of protecting civilians. The mission has defended its role and says it has helped improve security in Sudan's western region.

Peacekeepers were unharmed in the incident, which happened at about 6:20 pm (1520 GMT) on Sunday between Central and South Darfur states, Elbasri said.

A Nigerian battalion is in charge of the area for UNAMID.

Sources in the region told AFP the peacekeepers were outnumbered, and that the incident occurred near a Sudanese government checkpoint.

They were on their way from Zalingei, in Central Darfur, to the main South Darfur city of Nyala where the conference on Darfur's IDPs and refugees is taking place at a heavily-guarded hotel.

More than 270 IDPs from across Darfur had safely reached the meeting, along with around 70 refugees, mostly from neighbouring Chad, said Abdulbagi Ahmed Suliman, media director of Darfur's Voluntary Return and Resettlement Commission.

They were to outline their needs for returning to their abandoned villages, Suliman said from the conference venue for hundreds of civil society, UN, government and other delegates.

But he added they had already made their overriding concern clear: "Security, security, security."

The UN says 1.4 million people are still living in camps a decade after rebels from the Fur, Zaghawa and other indigenous groups began an insurrection seeking an end to what they said was the domination of Sudan's power and wealth by Arab elites.

In response, government-backed Arab Janjaweed militia shocked the world with atrocities against ethnic minority civilians. Villages were burned to the ground.

Although the worst of the violence has long past, rebel-government clashes continue while inter-Arab fighting and banditry complicate the situation.

"Even the IDP camp itself is not really that secure," with government-linked guards blamed for instability, a humanitarian source said.

A UN report cited several factors preventing large number of IDPs from returning.

"These include the absence of a comprehensive political settlement" bringing in all rebel groups, as well as "unresolved issues of land tenure and occupancy, tribal clashes, high levels of criminality, food insecurity, deteriorating environmental conditions and very limited rural infrastructure."

Mohammed, 64, told AFP he left his East Darfur village five years ago for neighbouring South Kordofan state.

Like many others, he had become fed up with the "armed groups" shooting and looting around the village, hindering their ability to grow crops.

"If security improves... it's better for me to go back to my village," said Mohammed, which is not his real name. "It's my home."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130325/darfur-rebel-boss-says-31-seized-mistake