Sudan probes accusations of 'mass rape' in a Darfur village
Under pressure to quash allegations that troops raped 200 women and girls after a soldier disappeared, the government brought reporters to observe the investigation.
Tabit, Sudan: Beneath one of the thorny trees dotting the village of Tabit, Darfur's prosecutor general sat interviewing women about a report Sudanese troops arrived last month and carried out a mass rape.
Dressed in his suit despite the 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) heat, Yasir Ahmed Mohamed took notes at a table as a woman wearing a brightly coloured robe talked to him. Nearby 10 others waited in line for their turn with the prosecutor.
Under pressure to quash allegations that Sudanese troops raped 200 women and girls here on 31 October after a soldier disappeared, the government brought reporters to this village to observe their investigation.
Officials refused to discuss the probe during the visit, but Khartoum has repeatedly denied the rape allegations, which have caused tensions with the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).
Many in the village also expressed support for the military, who they say protect them from several rebel groups still operating nearby.
"Relations with the government army are good, and they help the residents," said Muhahadein Surour, a villager who works as a health assistant.
Tabit lies in the north of Darfur, where fighting has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced two million since insurgents rebelled in 2003.
The insurgents complained Khartoum's Arab-dominated government had marginalised the mostly African ethnic groups living in Darfur.
Rebel forces took Tabit in 2003 and held it for seven years before a government offensive swept them from the village. The Sudanese Armed Forces have maintained a garrison to the east of Tabit since.
The rapes are alleged to have taken place as troops scoured the area for a missing serviceman and were reported by Radio Dabanga, a local Internet radio station and news website.
When journalists arrived in the village -- in a convoy of 40 pick-ups carrying heavily armed soldiers -- a crowd of about 300 people were waiting to greet the soldiers and deny the allegations.
They carried a banner reading "We reject the accusation that our daughters and sisters were raped" and chanted "Shame, shame on Radio Dabanga".
'We are not demons'
Nadia Osman, 27, who said she had lived in Tabit all her life, did not directly discuss the rape allegations but said life in the village was quiet.
"The days of the war were bad and we couldn't leave the village but now the atmosphere is calm," she said.
It has been impossible to independently verify the rape claims.
The UN was initially denied access to Tabit by government forces and when it entered the village on 9 November its team said it found no evidence to support the claim of mass rape.
But an internal report from the mission said the Sudanese military had tried to intimidate villagers to suppress the allegations.
The government then summoned the mission's acting chief and asked UNAMID to start planning its exit strategy from the region. Khartoum has also rejected further requests from UNAMID to visit the area.
The claims have dented the government's already battered international image over the conflict in Darfur. President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in the region.
In a meeting with Western diplomats on Friday, Abdullah al-Azraq, the under-secretary for the foreign minister, again denied the reports.
He said 45 soldiers from Tabit's garrison were actually living among the villagers and that some of them had married local women.
"We are not saying that we are angels, but we are 100 percent sure that we are not demons," Azraq said.
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