Darfur tribes turn on each other

SOME of the tribes accused of massacring civilians in the Darfur region of Sudan are now unleashing their firepower against each other in a battle over the spoils of war that is killing hundreds of people and displacing tens of thousands.

In recent months, the Terjem and the Mahria, heavily armed tribes that United Nations officials accuse of raping and pillaging together as part of the region's notorious janjaweed militias, have squared off in South Darfur.

UN officials said thousands of gunmen from each side were pouring into a strategic river valley called Bulbul. Clashes between two other tribes, the Habbaniya and the Salamat, were intensifying farther south.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Sudan yesterday on his first visit to lay the groundwork for a solution to the Darfur conflict through talks and deployment of peacekeepers. He will seek a commitment to his plan from Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

Darfur's violence has often been characterised as Government-backed Arab tribes slaughtering non-Arabs, but the latest fighting seems to be a sign of the complexity of the crisis.

What started out four years ago in western Sudan as a rebellion has become a chaotic free-for-all with dozens of armed groups.

UN officials said inter-tribal fighting was now killing more people than the battles between Government and rebel forces.

Though it has not come close to taking as many lives as during the height of the conflict in 2003 and 2004, when thousands were dying each month, aid officials say they fear the situation is getting out of control.

"The fragmentation of armed groups is among our major concerns," said Maurizio Giuliano, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Sudan. "This is making the situation even more complex, and more difficult for civilians, as well as for humanitarians trying to help them."

Though the Sudanese Government is blamed for arming militias in the first place ? an accusation it denies ? independent observers said it was not driving this phase of the conflict.

"The Government is no longer arming the janjaweed," said Colonel James Oladipo, the African Union commander in Nyala.

One of the most egregious examples of the recent infighting happened on the morning of July 31 near Sania Daleiba, in South Darfur. Terjem leaders said hundreds of Terjem who had gathered to bury an important sheikh were surrounded by Mahria, who opened fire, mowing down more than 60 Terjem.

The inter-tribal violence is impeding the recovery process that had begun in some parts of Darfur. About 2.2 million people are stuck in displaced persons' camps. Some had left, such as villagers from Jimaiza, north of Nyala, who walked out of their camp in July to plant their peanut fields.

They were not worried about militias, they said. Those days seemed over. But then the Terjem-Mahria feud erupted.

"It was strange," said Abakar Abdelrahman, a leader of the Fur tribe, the biggest in Darfur.

"A few days after the fighting, a Mahria elder came up to me and said: 'Tell your people not to go back to the camp. They're safe in the village. We don't have a problem with you.' "

But Mr Abdelrahman said: "I know these people. They killed my wife and burned my hut. I'll never trust them."