The African Union (AU) commander in Darfur, Festus Okonkwo, said on Friday his efforts to mediate between government troops and rebels had yielded minimal results and the region was now a "timed bomb that could explode at any moment".

"The quantity of arms and ammunition brought into Darfur to meet the present build-up of troops in the region is so astronomical that the issue is no longer whether there will be fighting or not, but when fighting will start," said Okonkwo, who heads an AU mission of 834 ceasefire monitors in Darfur.

A brigade, which normally numbers 600 to 700 troops, advanced towards Labado in south Darfur on Thursday, backed up by about 200 militia deployed alongside them, Okonkwo said.

"From a military point of view, this indicates an offensive, which if launched would be prejudicial to the peace process." 

Suspended talks

The Nigerian commander was delivering a situation report to AU-sponsored peace talks in the Nigerian capital, which were suspended on Monday by the rebels who accused the government of launching an offensive.

The AU commander says arms
are pouring into the region

Sudanese Agriculture Minister Majdhub al-Khalifa, representing the government at the Abuja talks, said after the AU report that it had called off the offensive.

"We have instructed our troops to stop the operation and they did," he said.

A rebel spokesman said talks would resume only when the troops withdrew to positions they occupied when a ceasefire was signed in April.

Both sides guilty

Okonkwo said both sides of the conflict, which has already displaced 1.6 million people and killed tens of thousands, were guilty of breaking the ceasefire.

He detailed one coordinated attack on the village of Ishma on 11 December by government forces working in concert with Janjawid militia, who burned and looted eight villages in advance of government troops.

The US says Darfur is one of the
world's worst humanitarian crises

"Some members of the international community have started to leave the region because of the speed and intensity of build-up of forces by the government and the reciprocal build-up by SLA and JEM in Labado and Mahajiriya, which are seen by many as the main battleground," Okonkwo said.

The commander of the African Union force also logged several recent attacks by rebels, including an ambush by the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) on the British charity Save the Children on 12 December, in which two people were killed, one injured and three went missing.

"SLA was involved in the attack as two Land Rovers belonging to Save the Children (UK) were recovered from SLA camp in Jurof," Okonkwo said.

Two women were raped in an attack on five staff of Save the Children on 5 December by unidentified armed militia, Okonkwo added.

Withdrawal call

The African Union called on the government to withdraw its newly deployed troops to reduce tension, and asked the SLA to stop seizing vehicles, stealing livestock and attacking government outposts.

After years of tribal skirmishes over scarce resources, rebels took up arms last year accusing Khartoum of neglect and of using the Janjawid to loot and burn villages.

Khartoum denies arming the Janjawid and calls them outlaws.

The United Nations has said Darfur, an arid area the size of France, is suffering from one of the world's worst humanitarian crises with 2.3 million people in need of aid.