Sudan rebels widen offensive, 'attack five areas'
Sudanese rebels said they attacked five areas in North and South Kordofan states on Saturday, widening an anti-government offensive in one of their most audacious acts in years.
"This is a significant shift in the war in Sudan," Abdel Wahid Mohammed al-Nur, who heads a faction of Darfur's Sudan Liberation Army, told AFP.
"We are heading to Khartoum," he said. "This is not a joke."
A regional political expert said the attacks were timed to the "failure" of peace talks this week between South Kordofan rebels and the government.
Residents in the South Kordofan state capital Kadugli said suspected rebel shelling was reported Saturday evening on the outskirts of the town. There was no immediate word of casualties.
In Umm Rawaba, the second largest town in North Kordofan, residents said rebels arrived Saturday morning on at least 20 vehicles for a brief occupation.
They fired their weapons into the air, causing panic, but met no initial resistance from security forces, townspeople said.
"We just saw some drones in the air," one resident said, adding that the insurgents looted the market.
Others said the town's inhabitants cowered in their homes as rebels shot at government buildings, hitting policemen, before withdrawing. The number of casualties could not be confirmed.
North Kordofan has been largely free from the rebel activity taking place in the Darfur region to its west, and South Kordofan to its south.
"This is part of our strategy to overthrow the regime," said Gibril Adam Bilal, spokesman for Darfur's Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
"This is an attack deep in Sudanese territory."
JEM and factions of the Sudan Liberation Army from Darfur are grouped in the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) with insurgents from South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad said troops confronted the rebels, causing "heavy losses" after they reached Abu Kershola in the far north of South Kordofan.
But rebels then looted Allah Kareem village before targeting Umm Rawaba, Saad said.
"They destroyed the communication tower and electricity station and looted civilian property and a fuel station," he said, quoted by the official SUNA news agency.
"SAF succeeded in controlling the situation in Umm Rawaba and defeated the rebels," Saad added late Saturday.
He said the army was tracking the insurgents who "scattered in small groups in different directions".
A resident reported no combat in the town but heavy explosions in the surrounding area, where he had seen Antonov bombers and helicopters overhead.
"There are extensive air strikes in the Umm Rawaba area," Bilal said, adding insurgents remained in the region.
SRF chief of staff Abdulaziz Al-Hilu said rebels seized government garrisons at Abu Kershola and Um Ktera before "chasing" the army to Umm Rawaba, Allah Kareem and to the edge of North Kordofan's El Rahad town.
SPLM-N spokesman Arnu Ngutulu Lodi denied that Saturday's SRF action was related to the peace talks in Addis Ababa. He called it retaliation for attacks on civilians.
A separate SPLM-N operation seized four villages east of Kadugli, he said.
Umm Rawaba, with a population of several thousand, is about 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of the state capital El Obeid, home to a government air base.
In 2008 JEM rebels pushed all the way to Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman where government forces said they were beaten.
Khartoum this week held its first direct peace talks with the SPLM-N in almost two years. But on Saturday both the government and SPLM-N said negotiations stalled over the issue of humanitarian access to the war zone.
"It means these... attacks were planned because of the failure of the first round of talks," said the regional political expert, asking for anonymity.
The rebel action aimed to demonstrate strength and is "very threatening for the government," he said.