Page last updated at 15:00 GMT, Monday, 12 May 2008 16:00 UK

Assault heralds change in Sudan

By Amber Henshaw
BBC News, Khartoum

The remains of a burnt-out jeep sits on the pavement in Khartoum's twin city Omdurman
State TV said 100 people were arrested in the weekend's violence

The ragged column of rebels headed away from the scene of their attack near Khartoum, leaves a string of questions and uncertainty in its wake.

One of the most pressing questions is why the fighters from Darfur's Justice and Equality Movement (Jem) launched their near-suicidal assault on Sudan's heavily defended capital in the first place.

Another is what they are planning to do next, now their 3,000-strong force has failed to topple the government, with still unknown losses.

One thing is certain: that nothing about Sudan - its capital, its festering conflict in Darfur, and its relations with neighbour Chad - will ever be the same again.

The most immediate change was felt by the residents of Omdurman, one of the three cities that makes up greater Khartoum, which took the brunt of the assault.

The weekend attack was the first time that rebels from Sudan's regions have reached the capital in decades.

Bubble of safety

Sudan has been beset by all forms of strife since before its independence in 1956.

But Khartoum has for the most part existed in a bubble, insulated from the insurgencies and counter-insurgencies breaking out in the west, east and south of the country.

A member of the security forces in a passing vehicle raises his gun in the air in Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman
Security forces repelled the attacks, but what will the impact be?

Even during the bloodiest early years of the Darfur conflict, Khartoum enjoyed a reputation as the "safest city in Africa".

But that feeling disappeared over the weekend, as Jem made its lightening raid on Omdurman - Khartoum's twin city on the opposite bank of the Nile.

In fact, pricking Khartoum's false bubble of safety may have been one of the main motives for the assault.

While fighting was still raging in Omdurman at 0200 on Sunday, one senior Jem commander phoned me with a simple message of retribution.

"There's no security in Darfur," said Sulieman Sandal. "Now there won't be any security in Khartoum for the foreseeable future."

Peace process

There was certainly little security on Monday, as reports and rumours of shootings and round-ups of Darfuris came from every corner of the capital.

One foreign diplomat, who did not want to be named, said it was clear that the situation still wasn't under control.

Another thing that has changed forever is the Darfur peace process.

The United Nations' and African Union's envoys to Darfur have yet to make an official statement following the attack. But plenty of pundits have been speaking for them.

"The peace process is completely out of the question," Sudan commentator Alex de Waal told the BBC.

His point was underlined by Sudanese government officials who said they would never negotiate anything with Jem again.

Hopes in tatters

Jem may be one of a number of rebel groups in Darfur - but it controls the most powerful military force in the remote region, and has a national agenda.

Before the attack, the AU and the UN were hoping to bring all warring sides together for vague talks about improving security for aid workers and civilians. Now even those hopes lie in tatters.

Hassan al-Turabi
Hassan al-Turabi has been accused of backing Jem - which he denies

And then there is the relationship with neighbour Chad.

The countries have been pursuing a largely overlooked proxy war for the last four years - using each other's rebels for the actual fighting.

Chad has twice accused Sudan of supporting rebel raids on its capital. Now it was their turn to strike back, said Sudanese presidential advisor Ghazi Salaheddin.

"They wanted to prove that they could do the same thing," he said.

Chad denied any involvement. But Sudan says it has collected concrete evidence against its western neighbour - claiming it caught staff from Chad's embassy in Khartoum actually directing the rebels as they came in.

Sudan plans to take its evidence to the UN Security Council. But there are now real fears that the proxy war could quickly turn into an open war along the border between Chad and Darfur.

Unpredictable future

As for what happens next - no one with any real knowledge of Sudan would dare make a definite prediction without a long list of cautions and qualifications.

Many commentators may think the attack was just a daring bid to get Jem some headlines and to make Khartoum feel the full pain of the Darfur conflict.

The Sudanese government clearly thinks something much more serious was going on - either that, or they are using Saturday's attack to round up the usual suspects.

The government says insiders within the police and armed forces helped the rebels, and that people have been arrested.

Hassan al-Turabi, the powerful Islamist leader of the opposition Popular Congress Party, was arrested with a handful of officials on Monday morning.

State media has only released veiled statements, but the implications of intrigue were clear.

In the past Sudan has accused Mr Turabi of backing Jem - an allegation he has denied.

Worries over repercussions

Darfuri human rights lawyer Saleh Mahmoud Osman told the BBC that security police were combing Khartoum on Monday, rounding up Darfuris.

There were particular worries about repercussions against members of the Zaghawa tribe - an ethnicity shared by Chad's President Idriss Deby and Jem leader Khalil Ibrahim.

A Sudanese tank sits in position in Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman
The government is not ruling out further rebel attacks on Khartoum

One improbable positive note came from semi-autonomous southern Sudan, where the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), former foes of the northern government, vowed to support the Khartoum regime.

Given the circumstances, it was something they would have had to say anyway.

But optimists did dare to hope that worsening relations with Chad might just strengthen bonds between north and south, bolstering the country's faltering north-south peace process.

And the biggest question of all, at least on the minds of Khartoum's residents, is will Jem dare to attack again?

Senior Jem official Dr Tahir El-Faki certainly says so. "We have left Omdurman now but we are regrouping and will launch fresh attacks on Khartoum," he told the BBC on Monday morning.

And the government isn't ruling it out either.

"It is possible there could be another attack. Khalil Ibrahim is crazy, he is power hungry, ambitious and being supported by Chad," said Mutrif Sadiq, Sudan's Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs.

"But we have learned from what happened this time and will be prepared for any action by Jem."

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