Sudanese rebels in the western Darfur region, however, accused the government of a "return to war". They said air raids on their positions on Saturday threatened indirect peace talks in neighbouring Chad.

Chadian mediators were shuttling between the two sides to find an explanation on the bombing, reports said on Sunday.

But military spokesman General Mohamed Bashir Sulaiman on Sunday was reported as saying the bombing was the result of "suspicious movements by armed groups belonging to the Justice and Equality Movement in the Orshu area in North Darfur".

Although smaller than the better-known Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A), the Justice and Equality Movement is drawn from the same ethnic African group and also wants a better deal from the central government.

Denial

Sulaiman said the Justice and Equality Movement was "not covered" by the ceasefire agreement signed between the government and the SLM/A in Abeche, Chad, last September and denied violating the ceasefire.

Helicopter wreck in North Darfur,
scene of many clashes

"The armed forces have resolved the matter militarily by air strikes," the independent daily Akhbar al-Youm quoted him as saying.

Government forces "stood up to a hostile act by the Justice and Equality organisation, which has not signed the ceasefire agreement to which the government is still committed", the paper added.

On Sunday, the independent daily al-Rai al-Aam reported the SLM/A was suspending indirect talks with Khartoum in Abeche to protest against the air strikes, it quoted one delegate as saying.

The bombing "manifested insincerity by the government in implementing the ceasefire agreement", al-Rai al-Aam reported deputy chief SLM/A delegate Usman Bushra as saying.

Deadlock

But the group would not leave Abeche or "close the door to talks to spare the Darfur people the calamities of war", he was quoted as saying.

Talks reached deadlock earlier this week, with the two sides accusing each other of putting forward unacceptable conditions for direct talks to take place.

On 3 September, the government and the SLM/A signed a ceasefire agreement which they later accused each other of violating.

The Darfur rebellion, launched in February to protest against economic neglect of the semi-desert region by Khartum, has left about 3000 dead so far, according to UN estimates. Another 400,000 have been displaced by the conflict.