Rebels in Sudan’s Darfur have moved within kilometres of a key town in the violence-racked region, local media have reported.
The African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) confirmed that Sudan Liberation Army’s Minni Minnawi faction had “attacked and seized” two towns over the weekend.
The fighting came as protests continued in the region against a two-day donors’ conference in the Qatari capital, Doha, that sought to raise funds to rebuild Darfur.
Rebels had taken the Ashma village, 8km from the South Darfur state capital Nyala, the AFP news agency reported on Monday.
Ashma was “occupied by our forces”, said Hussein Minnawi, of the Sudan Liberation Army’s Minni Minnawi faction.
The latest developments come as donor countries in Qatar pledged $3.6bn to develop Darfur.
The funds will help push a development strategy intended to move the region away from handouts and emergency aid by focusing on building infrastructure.
Magdi Hassan, Sudan’s minister of finance and economy, told Al Jazeera the talks would set the momentum towards improving the situation in Darfur.
But Minnawi said the Doha conference was not a solution to Darfur’s problems.
“This is what they say on paper,” he said, dismissing the effort and calling instead for a solution within the context of what he called Sudan’s wider crisis “which is mainly from the centre”, Khartoum.
“This conference is also targeting those living in the camps … it is important to give them back their lives. This is why we are here.“
– Magdi Hassan, Sudan Minister
He and other rebels, along with Sudanese opposition parties, want a “democratic federal state… based on equality,” with a separation between religion and government.
Finance minister Hassan said those demonstrating in internally displaced camps in Darfur were trying to sabotage an initiative to develop the region.
“This conference is also targeting those living in the camps … it is important to give them back their lives. This is why we are here,” he said.
Civil society activists in Darfur say that protesters are against the conference because of the continued instability in the region.
“They said basically that the people in Doha are not representing us,” said a civil society activist, declining to be named.
While the worst of the violence has long passed, rebel-government clashes continue along with inter-Arab battles, kidnappings, carjackings and other crimes in the region the size of France.
“The conflict damaged and destroyed infrastructure, seriously curtailed markets and disrupted trade, employment and, as confidence eroded, investment in much-needed development of the region diminished,” said a draft of the development strategy discussed at the Doha conference.
“Poverty levels in Darfur are among the highest in the country,” it added.
As rebels occupied a series of towns in Darfur, peacekeepers reported “several possible air strikes” in the area and said thousands of civilians had sought protection around UNAMID bases.
Sudan’s army spokesman could not be reached for comment.
The United Nations says 1.4 million people are still living in camps for the internally displaced, a decade after Minnawi and other rebels began their uprising against the Arab-dominated Khartoum regime.