By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Peacekeepers on Sunday said Sudan’s government had asked them to withdraw from a rebel-held Darfur town, amid reports state troops were preparing to attack the settlement.
The joint U.N./African Union UNAMID force said it was trying to convince Sudan to let its forces stay in the south Darfur town of Muhajiriya so they could continue to protect more than 30,000 civilians in the battle-scarred area.
Muhaririya has been the scene of more than two weeks of fierce fighting between Sudan government forces, troops from the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and other fighters.
JEM, which currently holds the town, told Reuters its commanders had reported four columns of Sudanese army troops, including one unit with tanks, were approaching the south Darfur town from different directions.
"We think they are planning a large attack," said JEM official Al-Tahir al-Feki. "Our main concern is for the civilians because they will bear the brunt of any fighting."
It was impossible to verify the report of the approaching troops independently and no one was immediately available for comment from Sudan’s armed forces.
UNAMID spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero said the Sudanese government on Sunday afternoon asked a 196-strong contingent of UNAMID peacekeepers to withdraw from the town, but had not given a reason for the request.
She said the U.N. and African Union’s joint special representative in Darfur, Rodolphe Adada, had flown back to Sudan from a conference in Ethiopia to try and persuade Sudan’s government to change its mind.
"We are asking that so we can continue what we are doing which is protecting civilians," she said. The peacekeepers were still in the town early Sunday evening, she added.
Analysts said the fighting around Muhajiriya has been the worst violence the region has seen in a year.
International experts say 200,000 have died in Darfur since mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the government, accusing it of neglect.
Khartoum puts the death count at 10,000. (Reporting by Andrew Heavens; Editing by Sophie Hares)