By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Sudanese security officers prevented U.N. and African Union peacekeepers from visiting a rebel-held Darfur town on Tuesday, amid growing fears of clashes over the settlement, U.N. officials said.
A high-level fact-finding mission from the joint U.N./AU UNAMID force was kept waiting for hours at the airport in El Fasher, the capital of north Darfur, then told they could not fly to Muhajiriya, said a U.N. officer who asked not to be named.
Tensions are high in Muhajiriya, where Sudanese government forces have vowed to flush out fighters from Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which seized the town in mid-January.
Sudan’s government on Sunday made an unprecedented request for a 196-strong unit of UNAMID peacekeepers to withdraw from their base in the south Darfur town, ahead of a planned government assault.
UNAMID has promised to stay in the settlement to protect 30,000 civilians - half of them residents, half of them Darfuris displaced from earlier clashes in the near six-year conflict.
Fighting has escalated in the build-up to a looming decision from the International Criminal Court on whether to issue an arrest warrant against Sudan’s president Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of orchestrating genocide in Darfur.
International experts say 200,000 have died and more than 2.5 million have been driven from their homes since mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against Khartoum in 2003, accusing it of neglecting the development of the region. Khartoum, which says 10,000 have died, accuses the Western media of exaggerating the conflict.
Tuesday’s fact-finding mission, which included UNAMID’s deputy force commander, was hoping to talk to residents and peacekeepers in the town.
"It is disheartening," said a U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We have seen and heard declarations that UNAMID should be assisted from the highest levels of government. But when it comes down to the field level, it doesn’t work out."
The official said the UNAMID mission was stopped by Sudanese officials who cited security concerns. It was unclear whether it was a deliberate obstruction or a breakdown of communication with authorities in Khartoum who had promised to assist UNAMID, the official added.
No one was immediately available for comment from Sudan’s armed forces or security services.
UNAMID and JEM rebels reported government planes bombed land outside Muhajiriya on Monday, causing thousands of residents to take shelter around the peacekeeping base.
UNAMID reported explosions had been heard from outside the town again on Tuesday morning, but peacekeepers in the town had been unable to confirm what caused them.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday called on JEM forces to withdraw from Muhajiriya and for Sudan’s government to show restraint.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in Addis Ababa, editing by Mark Trevelyan)