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The Khartoum attack: tit for tat for N’Djamena?

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has blamed the weekend's foiled rebel attack against Khartoum on his Chadian neighbour, though N'Djamena continues to deny its involvement. Chad closed its border with Sudan on Monday.

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Fighting lingered on in downtown Khartoum on Monday after the arrest and release of an Islamist opposition leader, Hassan al Tourabi, said to be close to the rebel Movement for Justice and Equality (JEM). On Saturday in Omdurman, Khartoum’s twin city across the river Nile, violent clashes pitted the Sudanese army against members of the JEM, Darfur’s most powerful paramilitary group.

It is the first time that Darfur rebels launch an attack against the Sudanese capital. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir accused Chad of backing the attack and broke off all diplomatic ties with its neighbour. “We blame Chad for the attack,” he said, before adding that he would “reserve the right to retaliate against the Chadian regime later”.

N’Djamena and the JEM have a history of supporting each other. The JEM was an active supporter of the Chadian army when fighting erupted in N’Djamena last February. As rebel columns advanced on the Chadian capital, the government of Idriss Deby accused Sudan of backing the offensive. According to several analysts, N’Djamena may have lent its support to the JEM this time as a reward for its help in defending the Chadian capital.

However, although JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim and Chadian President Idriss Deby are both from the same Zaghawas ethnic group, their relationship has never been an easy one.

N’Djamena has been condemning the actions of the JEM since it launched its offensive on Khartoum and continues to deny any implication. Maitine Djoumbé, the Chadian ambassador to the European Union, told France 24 that his country “had nothing to do with this particular case.”

According to Francis Soler, editor-in-chief of The Indian Ocean Newsletter, “the JEM could not have intervened only under pressure from Chad. They must have received assurances from Sudanese factions, most likely from Tourabi.” The JEM’s Khalil Ibrahim has previously served as Tourabi’s secretary.


“Khartoum is the sole winner in the story”

According to a source close to the matter, the Sudanese government suspects the JEM of having links to the army, and through Tourabi in particular. “With this bizarre attack, the rebels wanted to set up the conditions for a coup,” Soler says.

The JEM has never made a secret of its national ambitions. According to several specialists, the attack is mostly an internal matter. “This attack has nothing to do with Darfur,” says Marc Lavergne, a Sudan specialist at the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS). “The JEM always said its fight was a national one.” One of the JEM’s main leaders, Abdel Aziz el-Nour Achr, told Reuters news agency “we are trying to take Khartoum. If God wants, we’ll take power. It’s only a question of time.”

The attack also serves the purpose of the Sudanese government, which, according to several specialists, let the rebels reach the capital to get a better chance to stop them. According to a French diplomat, “the government was in a position to know that the rebel column was getting closer to the capital. One may wonder why it wasn’t stopped earlier.”

“Sudanese authorities seized the opportunity of confrontation to set the record straight with Hassan al-Tourabi,” says Zouheir Latif, an independent journalist in Khartoum. A former right-hand man of President Omar el-Béchir, Tourabi was imprisoned between 2004 and 2005 for an attempted coup, and is now the president’s worst enemy.

As Marc Lavergne suggests, “Khartoum is the sole winner in this story.”
 

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