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Government forces have counter-attacked a rebel-held town in southern Darfur, the insurgents said on Tuesday as the UN's top Sudan official called for immediate access to help thousands of civilians.
"This morning we resisted a government attack on Labado," Nuraldim Mohammed Taha, London representative of the Sudan Liberation Army's Minni Minnawi faction, told AFP from London.
The insurgents 10 days ago began an occupation of Labado and Muhagiriya, strategically located communities about 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of the South Darfur state capital Nyala, Sudan's second city.
Their extended stay in the area is unusual as rebels normally stage hit-and-run attacks.
Sudan's Defence Minister Abdelrahim Mohammed Hussein vowed last week to move against the insurgents.
The United Nations says authorities have deemed the area too insecure for aid agencies to enter.
Ali Al-Za'tari, the UN's chief in Khartoum, said government figures show that about 36,000 people have gathered around the bases of international peacekeepers in Muhagiriya and Labado.
"Reports received by the United Nations indicate an outbreak of diarrhoea among children requiring urgent and immediate assistance," Za'tari said, expressing "serious concern" for civilians in the area.
He said aid workers need access right away to assess the people's condition and provide relief supplies.
Za'tari urged the government and Minnawi rebels "to uphold their humanitarian responsibilities to protect all civilian populations."
He stressed that civilians wanting to leave the area must be allowed safe passage.
Minnawi and other ethnic rebels in Sudan's far-western Darfur region rose up against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government in 2003.
While the worst of the violence has long passed, rebel-government battles continue but instability has been complicated by inter-Arab fighting, kidnappings, carjackings and other crimes.
A UN panel of experts in February cited eyewitness and victim testimony as blaming "elements of the Popular Defence Forces and the Central Reserve Police for acts of harassment and intimidation" in rural areas and in camps for Darfur's 1.4 million displaced.
The Salamat tribe on Tuesday accused members of the paramilitary Central Reserve of joining recent fighting in Rahad el Berdi near Umm Dukhun in Darfur's southwest.
"The leaders of this police are biased and everyone took his relatives' side," the Salamat said in a statement which claimed dozens had died in Rahad el Berdi and Umm Dukhun.
On Sunday the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) said Sudanese authorities blocked its peacekeepers from the area.
It is the latest of numerous access restrictions cited by UNAMID, despite an agreement with the government which says peacekeepers have freedom of movement.
At least 18 people had been killed in fighting between the Misseriya and Salamat tribes in the Umm Dukhun area bordering Chad, a tribal leader told AFP last week.
Foreign donors have repeatedly expressed concern about Khartoum's restrictions on access to Darfur.
At a conference in the Gulf state of Qatar last week Canada said it faced "unacceptable obstructions to our development and stabilisation efforts" in Darfur, where security has "worsened."
There have been "frequent delays and refusals" of travel permits, Canada said.
At the same meeting the European Union said aid agencies still face "access restrictions that compromise donors' ability to plan and monitor their programmes".
The conference backed a six-year strategy aiming to move Darfur away from food handouts and other emergency aid, and laying the foundation for lasting development.
The government has recently taken measures it says should make it easier for aid workers to visit their projects.