Village makes poison claim; Says Sudanese air force dropped white powder Rwandan troops arrive in Darfur to protect observers

The Toronto Star
Monday, August 16, 2004
Page: A7
Section: News
Byline: Levon Sevunts
Dateline: SHEGEK KARO, NORTHERN DARFUR
Source: SPECIAL TO THE STAR

Inhabitants of this picturesque village in western Sudan said the Sudanese air force sprayed them with a strange powder that killed two villagers and dozens of heads of livestock in May.

Another bomb, dropped by a jet fighter the same day, produced a poisonous smoke that injured about 50 people on the other side of the village, they said.

A Sudanese air force Antonov plane dropped several rectangular plastic sacks, containing a white, flour-like powder, on a wadi – a dry riverbed – in the lower part of the village, they said. The villagers could not remember the exact date.

Rwandan troops arrived in Darfur yesterday as the first foreign force there, mandated to protect observers monitoring a shaky ceasefire between the Sudanese government and rebels in the remote western region.

Some 155 Rwandan troops were being sent to troubled Darfur at the weekend as part of an African Union force. Rwandan President Paul Kagame said Saturday his soldiers would also intervene to protect civilians in danger.

The comments again brought into question what role the initial 308 Nigerian and Rwandan forces will play in Darfur. Khartoum has rejected a peacekeeping role for any troops other than Sudanese.

The AU has said it hopes to increase the number of troops to 2,000.

Diro Chupui, a 33-year-old shepherd, talking about incidents in Shegek Karo in May, said he was tending his flock on the mountainside opposite the wadi, when he heard the plane approach.

“It was a big white plane with its bottom painted black,” Chupui said. “We call them Black Antonovs.”

Muhammad Abdullah, a 13-year-old boy, said he was at the hand-pump wells in the wadi when he heard a very loud noise.

“We lay on the ground because we knew that the Antonov was coming,” Muhammad said. But instead of the usual load of iron bombs, the Antonov, a Russian-made transport plane converted into a bomber by the Sudanese Air Force, dropped plastic sacks that burst on impact and spilled a flour-like substance, the boy said.

Mukhtar Muhammad, a 30-year-old shopkeeper at the nearby market, said he counted eight sacks.

“They were like parcels,” he said. “They contained something that looked like fine ash and it smelled of gunpowder. It made people sick immediately. People were vomiting and complaining of strong headaches.”

A 60-year-old man and a 4-year-old boy, who were very close to one of the sacks, died within hours.

The villagers identified the victims as Salim Diar and Muhammad Ibrahim, and pointed at Diar’s grave under a tree not far from where he was killed.

“The old man was complaining of a terrible headache and he was vomiting too,” the shopkeeper Muhammad said. “All the animals that were near the powder or ate it dropped dead,” he added, pointing at about two dozen rotten carcasses strewn on the floor of the wadi.

However, it was impossible to verify whether the animals had died because of the powder or from other causes.

In the meantime, on the other side of the village, a MiG jet fighter dropped another unusual bomb, said Ismail Haggar, the village teacher.

“It wasn’t an iron bomb,” Haggar said, pointing to the bomb’s relatively shallow crater in the ground. “It didn’t produce a loud explosion, but there was a lot of smoke coming out of the crater.”

The smoke covered almost the entire valley but the wind blew it away from the village, Haggar said. Still, about 50 people in nearby huts fell violently ill, he said.

“They had strong headaches,” Haggar said, poking the bottom of the crater with a branch to reveal a white powdery substance under the sand.

“They were vomiting, feeling very weak and very cold. Some people were sick for two weeks,” Haggar said. “If the wind were blowing their way, they would all be dead.”

Suleiman Jamous, humanitarian co-ordinator with the Sudanese Liberation Movement, the political arm of the Sudanese Liberation Army, which controls the region, said there have been other reports of strange substances that kill livestock.

“Animals die every day because they eat something that leaked out of bombs, dropped by the Sudanese army,” he said.

He said representatives of Human Rights Watch had taken a sample of the suspected substances to determine what kind of chemicals were used.

The group has only recently left Darfur and the results of the tests are not available yet, Jamous said. The group could not be reached for comment.

The Rwandan troops arriving in Darfur were greeted yesterday by the head of the AU ceasefire commission, Festus Okonkwo, who told them to take their mandate as a protection force for the 118 AU monitors currently in Darfur “as a Bible.” But he added that on humanitarian grounds they could take action to protect civilians in danger.

Okonkwo said Nigeria’s soldiers would arrive in Darfur on Aug. 25 to complete the initial deployment of 308 soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese government has about two weeks to prove to the United Nations Security Council it is serious about improving the security situation in Darfur, or face unspecified sanctions.

Rights groups and the rebels accuse Khartoum of arming the Janjaweed to loot and burn African farming villages as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Khartoum denies the charge, calling the Janjaweed outlaws.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Ismail told reporters in Khartoum yesterday the government had designated safe areas in Darfur.

The U.N. calls Darfur the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and says 50,000 people have been killed and at least 1 million more displaced since two rebel groups took up arms against the government in February last year.

With files from Reuters

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