By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Sudan’s armed forces said Sunday that they killed the leader of Darfur’s main rebel group, inflicting what could be a severe blow to rebels who have waged a nearly decade-long war against the Arab-led government in Khartoum.
In a statement carried on the official Sudan News Agency, the army said Khalil Ibrahim, leader of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement, was killed in fighting in Wad Banda in the North Kordofan region, which borders Darfur. A spokesman for JEM confirmed Ibrahim’s death to the French news agency Agence France-Presse, but said he was killed in an airstrike.
Ibrahim, a charismatic leader from one of Darfur’s largest tribes, was considered one of the most powerful rebel commanders from the remote western region of Sudan, where the United Nations says as many as 300,000 people have died since fighting began in 2003.
He had been based in Libya in recent years, but returned to Sudan when Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown. JEM was once Darfur’s best-armed and most effective rebel groups, although it is reported to have suffered losses in the fighting in Libya this year.
In 2008, JEM staged a bold attack on the capital in which more than 200 people were killed. Its fighters were only a few miles from the presidential palace when government troops stopped them.
The group signed a truce with Khartoum last year, but soon abandoned it, accusing the government of launching fresh attacks in Darfur.
JEM and other key factions refused to join an African Union-backed peace pact, which was signed in July by the government and the Liberation and Justice Movement, an umbrella group of smaller rebel factions.
This week, JEM said its forces had advanced into North Kordofan and were headed toward the capital to overthrow President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir’s government. On Saturday, the army said JEM attacked three areas in North Kordofan, killing and displacing an unspecified number of civilians.
Sudanese armed forces surrounded Ibrahim and his fighters on North Darfur’s border with North Kordofan and prevented them from crossing into the newly independent state of South Sudan to reorganize, the army said. South Sudan seceded from the north in July after a two-decade civil war that ended in 2005.
The Darfur conflict started in 2003 with a rebellion against the Arab-led government in Khartoum. Bashir is accused by the International Criminal Court a brutal campaign against the rebels that killed 35,000 people and led to the deaths of at least 100,000 others from disease and starvation.