Sudanese troops raided one of Darfur's biggest and most volatile camps early Monday, setting off a deadly clash that killed an unknown number of people and wounded dozens, according to U.N. and humanitarian officials.
More than 20 people were believed to be dead, but that estimate could not be confirmed because access to the camp for 90,000 displaced people remains restricted. At least 48 gunshot victims, two-thirds of whom were women and children, were evacuated Monday evening to nearby hospitals, a United Nations spokeswoman said.
Details remained unclear, but the fighting began after more than 70 government vehicles surrounded the sprawling southern Darfur camp known as Kalma, located near the city of Nyala.
"They went apparently with the intent to conduct a cordon-and-search because of allegations there may have been weapons in the camp," said Kemal Saiki, spokesman for the U.N.-African Union Mission in Darfur.
The government said soldiers faced gunfire from militants inside the camp.
"Civilians were brought into the streets as human shields," the government said in a statement, which put the number of injured at 12, including five soldiers.
Others claim soldiers opened fire without warning from positions outside the camp perimeter. During a six-hour confrontation, dozens of mud-and-straw huts were burned and destroyed, according to aid officials and rebel leaders. Hundreds of camp residents fled into the surrounding desert.
The U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, Ameerah Haq, said in a statement that she was "gravely concerned" and called for government troops, which remained positioned around the camp, to permit evacuation of the wounded.
Darfur, in western Sudan, is dotted with camps for residents of the region driven from their homes by fighting between rebels and forces loyal to the central government in Khartoum.
Government officials have long sought to close Kalma, which they complain has grown too large and unwieldy. On several occasions over the last few years, government troops have been accused of forcibly relocating Kalma residents.
"This has been coming for a while," said one aid official who did not want to be identified for fear of government retribution. "The government has been waiting for an opportunity to close the camp down."
In recent months, government officials have restricted the amount of food, fuel and supplies that could enter the overcrowded camp, the aid official said.
Government representatives could not be reached for comment.
By most accounts, Kalma is awash in weapons and has become a haven for rebels, and government officials have warned in recent months that they would disarm the camp. In a similar raid of Kalma last month, local Sudanese police said they seized cannons, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.
Early this year, Amnesty International said the majority of Kalma residents were armed and warned that gangs of displaced youths were fighting one another. Rebel groups frequently use the camp to recruit fighters.
This militarization of Kalma and other camps highlights a rising risk in Darfur, experts say.
"The camps could become the new front line," said Sudan analyst Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College. If camp dwellers continue to arm themselves because they are losing faith in the ability of the U.N. to resolve the crisis, the Sudanese government could use the presence of weapons as a reason to attack.
"If people start to have the feeling that the war has been taken to the camps, then you're talking about a tinderbox," Reeves said.
Camp leaders deny that they have weapons and accuse the government of fabricating the recent arms seizure.
"The government wants to evacuate the camp by any means, peacefully or by force," said Najmaldin Abdulkarim, a London-based spokesman for a newly created Darfur refugee union. "Kalma is seen as a stronghold and that's why the government targeted this camp."
The Darfur conflict began in 2003 with a rebel attack on government facilities. The government in Khartoum is accused of unleashing counterinsurgency militias that attacked hundreds of villages, displacing more than 2 million people and leading to the deaths of more than 200,000.
Kalma has been a pressure cooker since 2005, when residents burned a police station.