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Sudan Militia Leader Links Regime to Crisis

Times Staff Writer

A top Sudanese tribal leader accused of committing war crimes in his country’s western Darfur area said the government had backed and directed his activities, contradicting officials’ claims that they had no links to local militia violence in the region.

In a four-hour videotaped interview with Human Rights Watch made public Wednesday, militia leader Musa Hilal said his group of fighters didn’t act alone but followed orders from Sudan’s government and military. “All of the people in the field are led by top army commanders,” he told investigators with the rights group in the fall. “These people get their orders from the western command center and from Khartoum,” the capital.

He denied having a leadership role in the military or committing atrocities. “I mobilize people, I coordinate with recruiters. I’ve been with the PDF [official militia] commanders, but I was never a commander of troops in a war zone,” he said.

Sudan’s U.N. ambassador did not return messages Wednesday seeking comment. Since 2003, tens of thousands of people have died in the militias’ systematic conquest of land in Darfur, and nearly 2 million people have been displaced.

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Many in Darfur believe Hilal is the main militia leader in the region, and his name topped a list of most-wanted militia chiefs that U.S. officials presented to Khartoum last year.

“We now see that the two parties responsible for crimes against humanity in Darfur are pointing the finger at each other,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “Musa Hilal is a dangerous man for the Sudanese government. His testimony could be very interesting to the International Criminal Court.”

The Security Council has struggled with how to halt the fighting and punish those responsible for the violence that has ravaged Sudan’s western region since rebels took up arms against the government in 2003.

Several hundred African Union troops have been sent into the area to monitor a faltering cease-fire, but reports of attacks by both rebels and government-backed forces continue. The Security Council has so far failed to spur Khartoum to disarm or prosecute the militias.

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The United States is circulating a draft Security Council resolution that calls for sanctions against militia and government leaders and says those accused of war crimes should be tried in an international court.

But the resolution has been stalled by American opposition to the International Criminal Court, the venue recommended by a U.N. commission of inquiry. In January, the commission determined that the government and allied militias had committed crimes against humanity, but not genocide, in Darfur.

Hilal’s description of the chain of command may complicate diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis because it pokes holes in the Sudanese government’s claims that the violence in the region is the result of ethnic and tribal clashes in which the state is neutral.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Hilal in September after the U.S. State Department called the atrocities in Sudan genocide. Jemera Rone, an interviewer, said the Sudanese government had made Hilal available to talk to diplomats and journalists at the time.

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The tribal chief granted his first interview with a western journalist to Samantha Power, a writer and human rights expert at Harvard, allowing her to accompany him for several days in August. She noted in a New Yorker article that the government had provided him with satellite phones and transport in chartered planes and military helicopters. She documented his control of broad areas in Darfur, but in the article, Hilal said that taking up arms was beneath a sheik and dismissed reports that he was the chief militiaman.

“It was part of the diplomatic spin the government was trying to put on the whole thing,” Rone said. “Musa Hilal is not an outlaw, he’s a tribal leader. But then he started talking about the government supervising things, and he suddenly dropped out of sight. Now, they are very afraid of him, because he can name names, and he’s not going to take the fall for anyone.”

Rone said a combination of travel, translation and the technical production of DVDs and videos had delayed the interview’s release, but Human Rights Watch still regarded its publication as important.

“I hope it just reminds the council that there are people sitting very comfortably in Khartoum who have not been brought to account at all,” Rone said.

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