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Sudan 5thLd-Writethru 05-12

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Darfur rebel leader vows attrition war for Sudan

Eds: AMs. SUBS 3rd graf to CLARIFY rebels outran pursuers.

AP Photo CAI103, CAI102, CAI101

By SARAH EL DEEB and MOHAMED OSMAN

Associated Press Writers

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KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Darfur’s most-wanted rebel leader vowed Monday to keep up his offensive against the Sudanese government, saying he can exhaust the military by fighting it all across Africa’s largest nation.

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Khalil Ibrahim said the military success of the Justice and Equality Movement is easy to explain. "We are more spread out and we move fast."

The speed of his forces was widely credited with allowing Ibrahim’s men to reach the outskirts of Khartoum to launch an attack Saturday. They set out from the Darfur and Kordofan regions under cover of night in pickup trucks and, according to Ibrahim, vehicles similar to those used by the army. They were spotted by the military but outran pursuers as they raced across the vast arid terrain of central Sudan with little obstruction.

"The government can’t keep up with the JEM," Ibrahim said. "It will be exhausted ... We can move from the north, south, west and east freely."

Ibrahim said he was speaking by phone while on the run in the capital’s twin city of Omdurman, where his rebels staged the daring raid. It is the closest that Darfur’s rebels have ever gotten to the seat of the government.

"I am still in Omdurman. I am not safe but I am with all my forces," Ibrahim said, disputing government claims that the attackers were crushed. He said reinforcements were on the way. Gunfire could still be heard in Khartoum on Monday morning.

The attack shocked the government, which was pursuing a full-scale manhunt for Ibrahim and cracking down on other opposition figures. Islamist opposition politician Hassan al-Turabi, accused of links to JEM, was detained for questioning Monday but was released without charge.

Ibrahim’s movement has emerged as the most effective rebel group in Darfur, where ethnic Africans took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in 2003 to fight discrimination.

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Ibrahim declined to explain how his fighters managed to attack a city hundreds of miles from their bases in Darfur, but he claimed to have allies inside Khartoum itself. "I have people inside the army, security and police and students in the university," he said.

His group, unlike other rebel movements in Darfur, has succeeded in expanding its operations out of the wartorn region into the central province of Kordofan, next to the capital.

Ibrahim’s close family ties with the powerful Chad-based Zaghwa tribe has bolstered his ranks and military capabilities, especially as relations have declined between Sudan and its western neighbor.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has accused Chad of being behind the weekend attack and warned that his government reserved the right to retaliate. Sudan’s state television claimed Ibrahim had asked for Chad to send a helicopter to evacuate him.

Chad’s government, meanwhile, announced late Monday that its border with Sudan was closed. But the 600-mile border runs through some of the most inhospitable and remote countryside in the world and armed groups have long passed across it with impunity.

Experts said Ibrahim’s advance to the edge of Khartoum was meant to bring the Darfur war to the heart of the regime’s power base and force Sudanese to confront the conflict’s festering humanitarian wounds, with at least 200,000 dead and 2.5 million people forced from their homes.

The question remains whether Ibrahim can support his boast to harass Sudan’s armed forces the length and breadth of the vast country.

"I would be very surprised if this didn’t put Khartoum in a continuous state of alert," said Eric Reeves, a Sudan expert at Smith college. "But I don’t believe this is a military strategy that really will take it to Khartoum in the long run, and I think the reprisals are going to be ferocious."

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Alex de Waal, a British expert on Sudan, described Ibrahim’s advances as a "bid for power." He said the rebel leader might want to keep up the pressure on the regime, but was unlikely to be able to withstand the response.

"I think it was a miscalculation," he said. "The majority of Darfur rebels don’t share that ambition ... They want peace for their places rather than wanting power in Khartoum for themselves."

Ibrahim’s group claims it has thousands of fighters, but most experts believe the number is in the hundreds, making pitched battles like the clash in Omdurman an expensive proposition.

The movement does not lack for military supplies, however, and observers have seen JEM fighters with heavy weapons such as rockets and anti-aircraft guns. AP reporters along the Chad-Sudan border also have seen Ibrahim’s fighters operating on both sides of the frontier.

Reeves said Chad has in recent months bolstered the group’s military arsenal. Chadian President Idris Deby, a tribal relative of Ibrahim, has accused Sudan of supporting a Chadian rebel attack on his country’s capital in February.

Al-Turabi, head of Sudan’s powerful opposition National Popular Congress, also has been suspected of having ties to Ibrahim, and Sudanese security officers took him in for questioning Monday about Saturday’s attack.

"They asked me about my relation" with the Justice and Equality Movement, al-Turabi told al-Jazeera satellite television after his release late Monday. "I told them I don’t see any link between me and such investigation so I will not answer them."

Al-Turabi, who has a doctorate from the Sorbonne, is one of the founders of the Islamic political movement in Sudan and he used to head the Muslim Brotherhood.

He and Ibrahim were once Cabinet ministers in Sudan’s regime and both seek Islam-based government. Ibrahim, however, broke with al-Turabi and al-Bashir’s government over the issue of ethnic rights for the people of Darfur and still have their differences.

Observers said al-Turabi has been talking with the regime about re-engaging in politics and competing in the country’s elections.

Ibrahim denied having any ties to al-Turabi. "My people in Khartoum ... are not related to Turabi," he said in the phone interview.

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Associated Press writers Sarah el Deeb reported this story from Cairo, Egypt, and Mohamed Osman from Khartoum, Sudan.

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