The Sudanese government has allegedly been using chemical weapons against civilians in the Darfur region according to a detailed report published Thursday by Amnesty International. The human rights organization has carried out dozens of interviews and analyzed footage from the Jabel Mara area, documenting victims of aerial and artillery attacks which spread “black smoke” poisoning the air and causing death by suffocation and severe injuries to the survivors.
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The fighting between the Sudanese regime and rebels in Darfur has been ongoing since 2003, with the main victims of the war being civilians in the south-western region of the country. Human rights organizations have estimate that over 300 thousand people have been killed and millions displaced from their homes. In 2008, Sudanese President Omar al Basheer became the first head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The revelations published by Amnesty on the use of chemical weapons in the remote Jabel Mara mountain region are a new and worrying development in the long war. Amnesty’s investigators have documented at least 32 cases in which bombs dropped from planes and probably also artillery shells, containing chemical agents, were used against civilian areas. In satellite footage, dozens of villages can be seen abandoned, though ground forces are not there. The attacks began in January this year and the last one in the report was three weeks ago.
Among the footage collected by Amnesty, are the pictures of a child dying, screaming in pain, after allegedly being the victim of a chemical attack. Other photographs show women and children covered in strange blisters and lesions. Independent experts believe these are also the result of chemical weapons. Local medical personnel have testified that they hadn't seen anything like it during the years of fighting since 2003. One of them said that “their skin was falling off and their bodies had become rotten."
The report is based on 184 interviews with survivors but the investigators could not access the area due to restrictions imposed by the Sudanese government. Amnesty has recorded 171 villages that have been abandoned or partially abandoned as a result of the latest offensive. At least 200 people, many of them children, have been killed in the attacks.
Sudan’s ambassador to the United Nations denied to Reuters the findings of the Amnesty report, saying that “the allegations of use of chemical weapons by Sudanese Armed Forces is baseless and fabricated."
Darfur is now the second warzone where chemical weapons have been used in recent years. The first one was the war in Syria where the Assad regime’s forces have repeatedly used chemical weapons against civilian areas under rebel control. The most significant case was the attack on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, in August 2013, where an estimated 1,400 people were killed by chemical weapons. The United States, Britain and France threatened to launch strikes on the Assad regime following the Ghouta attack but ultimately made do with the Syrian government signing the Chemical Weapons Convention and dismantling its chemical arsenal.
Since then, there have been dozens of reports of the regime using bombs containing chlorine against civilians. However, chlorine is not covered by the convention. Sudan is a full signatory to the convention (Israel has signed but not ratified) and it is hard to assume that they would have used such weapons if the international community had severely punished Syria for its use.
The ICC has issued two arrest warrants against Sudanese President al Basheer but since Sudan (like Israel and the U.S.) is not a signatory to the Rome Treaty which is the basis for the ICC’s jurisdiction, al Basheer has not complied and he continues to travel freely throughout Africa as well as to China and India.
Over the past two years, a combination of money and pressure from Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the Middle East, has prized the Sudanese regime away from the Iranian axis, with which it once cooperated closely. Sudan is now part of the Sunni camp lead by the Saudis and, according to intelligence sources, this has largely closed the Sudanese route of Iranian weapons being smuggled to Hezbollah and Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Haaretz reported last month that Israeli diplomats have been urging their western counterparts to be more accommodating to Sudan, despite its regime’s crimes, as a result of its distancing itself from Iran.
According to Amnesty, some 8,130 Sudanese citizens, a quarter of them from Darfur, are currently living in Israel and have been waiting for years for their asylum requests to be processed.