Sudan Fighting Surges Anew as Rains Stop Melissa Block talks with New York Times reporter Lydia Polgreen. Polgreen, who is based in Dakar, has reported extensively on the conflict and the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. The rainy season has just ended in northern Sudan, reinvigorating the fighting there. Polgreen recently traveled to the border with Chad.
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Sudan Fighting Surges Anew as Rains Stop

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Sudan Fighting Surges Anew as Rains Stop

Sudan Fighting Surges Anew as Rains Stop

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The Chief U.N. envoy to Sudan, Jan Pronk, says he does not regret comments he made that got him expelled by the Sudanese government. In his Weblog, Pronk highlighted two major defeats suffered recently by the Sudanese armed forces in Darfur. That led Sudan to call Pronk an enemy of the country and order him to leave.

New York Times reporter Lydia Polgreen has seen the results of recent fighting in Darfur and what she calls two humiliating defeats inflicted by rebels on the Sudanese army. She joins us from neighboring Chad. Lydia thanks for being with us.

Ms. LYDIA POLGREEN (New York Times): Thank you.

BLOCK: And why don't you tell us about what you saw in terms of the results of these battles.

Ms. POLGREEN: Well, we were taken into Darfur just across the border from eastern Chad by a rebel group called the National Redemption Front. And they took us to a very barren, rocky plain where there had been a Sudanese government army camp. And that camp had been utterly destroyed. There were dozens of bodies of Sudanese soldiers strewn around, many of them apparently caught as they were trying to flee, and gunned down in their trenches, gunned down in their makeshift shelters.

There apparently had been hundreds if not a thousand men living in this camp for about a month. The camp had been picked clean of all the weaponry and all of the vehicles, which the rebels had carried off and taken to their own camp. So they had showed us a scene that was really quite remarkable.

BLOCK: And I have to say it does run counter to the impression that we often get of the fighting in Darfur, which is that there's an overwhelmingly powerful Sudanese army and the Arab militias that fight alongside it. This shows - at least in this one battle - substantial rebel strength.

Ms. POLGREEN: Yes. That's right. I think most people imagine that there's this huge army that attacks civilians and that the Janjawid fight along with it. And while that has happened in the past, in this new phase of fighting it appears that there has been direct combat between the rebels and the government soldiers.

BLOCK: The Janjawid are the Arab militias fighting alongside the Sudanese government.

Ms. POLGREEN: That's correct. In the part of Darfur that I was in there was not direct Janjawid involvement in these attacks. What we saw were very much demoralized and poorly equipped Sudanese soldiers who were sent to pretty much baby sit the border. And when they were attacked they weren't prepared for it.

And when I had an opportunity to speak with some of these soldiers who had fled into Chad, they said that their morale was very low. Many of them said that they had no interest in fighting this war in Darfur and really they just wanted to go home.

BLOCK: Do you think that the battle you saw - the results of the battles that you saw - point to some larger trend going on in this fighting now? In other words, is the rebel movement gaining strength?

Ms. POLGREEN: Well, it's tough to say. The rebel movements have been very much splintered. There were three main groups. One of them signed a peace agreement with the government in May. And then the other two - along with many defectors from the third group - have joined forces under the banner of this new rebel movement called the National Redemption Front. And they do seem to be tactically working together. They seem to have fairly large numbers.

So I think it's fair to say that they are gaining strength. I think what's going to be tough to say in the coming months in terms of where this conflict is going, is how the government will respond to these attacks, which really are quite brazen and are quite effective.

If the government decides to call upon the tools that it's used in the past, that being the Janjawid militias, then the consequences for civilians in Darfur could be quite devastating. Because these attacks of Janjawid militias have typically taken place in villages and towns and perhaps could even take place in refugee camps.

BLOCK: You describe the rebels in Darfur as being flush with weapons. Where are they getting those weapons from?

Ms. POLGREEN: Well, there've always been alliances between the rebels and neighboring Chad. So they've been able to get some weapons through those connections. Eritrea is also believed to be a supplier of weapons to the rebels. We're talking about a region with very porous borders. It's really awash with weapons.

BLOCK: Lydia, you're talking with us from the capital of Chad - N'Djamena - and there's a story brewing in Chad right now of rebel attacks near the border with Sudan, this time Chadian rebels that apparently are now advancing towards the capital. What can you tell us about that?

Ms. POLGREEN: There are Chadian rebels who are seeking to remove Idriss Déby, the president of Chad, from power. They're believed to have the support of the government in Khartoum. But the information that we have now is that the rebels have overrun at least two towns in Chad and appear to be heading towards the capital.

We're waiting to get some more information on exactly where they are and what their intentions are. But in the past few days, their leaders have made statements that they're planning something big. So we'll just wait and see.

BLOCK: Lydia Polgreen thanks very much.

Ms. POLGREEN: Thank you.

BLOCK: New York Times reporter Lydia Polgreen speaking with us from N'Djamena, the capital of Chad.

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