KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — The Sudanese army said Tuesday that at least 60 rebels had been killed in clashes in the country's south, while the main rebel group there accused the government of launching assaults to divert international attention away from a security vacuum in Darfur.
The army's spokesman, Col. Sawarme Khalid, said Sudanese troops retook control of the strategic Mafo area in the Blue Nile state. He said Sudanese troops sustained "minor casualties."
The rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM-N) said the government in Khartoum was hoping to use the strikes near South Sudan to undermine peace talks in Ethiopia set for early March. The two neighbors are in talks over border security and oil exports.
SPLM-N fought alongside southern rebels during a 21-year civil war with Khartoum.
The army spokesman told the official Sudan News Agency that some rebels retreated and crossed the border into South Sudan. Khartoum has frequently accused South Sudan of supporting the rebels near Sudan's southern border. Since the South's independence in 2011, Juba maintains it has cut off support for the rebels.
Rebels also claimed that the Sudanese government was using the attack to galvanize loyalists against a political opposition that has grown more unified, recently signing a "New Dawn Charter" that calls for overthrowing longtime leader Omar al-Bashir.
The group's statement emailed to reporters did not mention how many rebels had been killed, but said clashes are still ongoing and in their fifth day. The clashes have displaced thousands of civilians.
The rebels claimed that the government is also trying to divert attention "away from the serious reports and information from Darfur that says the Islamists insurgents who fled war in Mali have arrived (in) Darfur" under the protection of the regime in Khartoum.
The government has not responded to requests for comment about claims by locals that militants from Mali have fled to the war-ravaged region.