Thirty-two soldiers and 20 rebels were killed in a foiled rebel attempt to capture an airport in a western Sudanese regional capital, the government-owned al-Anbaa newspaper reported on Saturday.

   

Friday's fighting between the military and the recently emerged rebel movement in the Darfur region destroyed several planes and inflicted heavy damage at the airport in al-Fashir, the paper cited senior officials as saying.

 

Sudanese southern rebel
leader John Garang (l)
with Egyptian Foreign
Minister Ahmed Maher

"The attackers ... seized the residential area near the airport and with the support of fifth columnists, attacked the airport ... firing indiscriminately at fuel depots and four planes," which were destroyed, the paper quoted armed forces spokesman Mohamed Bashir Suleiman as saying.

   

"The town of al-Fashir is now secure and life is beginning to return to normal in the town after the  armed forces managed to contain the

situation," he said.

   

Al-Fashir, the largest town in the Darfur region, is some 800 km south-west of Khartoum and is the capital of Northern Darfur state.

   

Darfur's Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A), which has been fighting government forces in the remote region that borders Chad since early February, had said on Friday that it had managed to capture al-Fashir, a claim the government denied.

   

The movement accuses Khartoum of excluding Darfur, one of the most arid regions in Africa's largest country, from development and state power. It has also recently called for the  overthrow of the "Islamic    regime in Khartoum and    its replacement with a democratic government".

   

The Darfur rebels have no apparent links with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), a southern rebel group which has been fighting for greater autonomy for the south from successive Islamist governments in the north since 1983.

   

But analysts say the SLM/A appears to be emulating the southern rebels following their success in bringing the government to the negotiating table after two decades of war in which some two million people have died.