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Rebels show their strength in Darfur

WADI ANKA, Sudan --In the sands of a dry riverbed in northern Darfur, rebel leaders squatted with their weapons, drinking mint tea and trying to forge a united front in their struggle for independence from Sudan.

Wearing flowing white robes or motley uniforms, commanders with the Sudan Liberation Army got together in this desolate, arid spot to agree on a central rebel command for Darfur, a vast area of western Sudan.

While the rebels have fought successfully against the Sudanese military and armed ethnic Arab militias in small units, they have been divided along tribal and regional lines. Now, they said, they're determined to work together to force the government in Khartoum to come to terms.

"We've tried before, but this is the first time we're really serious about it," said Saleh Adam Itzahk, a senior rebel commander from the Jebbel Midob mountains in northeast Darfur. "The war is dragging on because of our disunion. And we've been cheated of our rights too many times because of it."

The field commanders, who started coming here from across the region last week, were surrounded by bodyguards armed with automatic rifles and claimed they left hundreds of fighters back home. Dozens of pickup trucks jammed with gunmen patrolled the area on the outskirts of the summit.

Mohammed Ibrahim, a separatist commander, shouted orders into a satellite phone. A pro-government militia had entered his sector of the remote western Jebbel Moon mountains that morning, and he was frantically organizing a counterattack. In December, a similar raid killed 53 villagers, including 27 children, according to a U.N. report.

"The international community must finally recognize that we represent the vast majority of Darfur," said Jar al-Naby, a Sudanese Liberation Army spokesman and a rebel field commander, in the midst of the gathering. "Look around you."

An Associated Press reporter who attended this clandestine summit traveled for days through rebel-held territory to reach the site. During the journey, he saw little evidence of Sudanese government forces -- despite Khartoum's claims that the rebels are cornered in a small patch of desert.

Neither was there any sign of the government-backed militias, called the janjaweed, which have rampaged through ethnic African villages in Darfur, burning, killing and helping drive millions from their homes.

There was, in fact, no visible government presence at all for hundreds of miles in this northern area, dominated by the Zaghawa tribe, whose fighters spearhead the rebellion.

"Apart from janjaweed raids, we haven't seen any government for years," said Attaieb Abdallah, who acts as the SLA's chief of police in the village of Karo, a few hundred miles from the wadi where the rebels met.

He pointed to craters from a recent government bombing raid. "This is their only presence," he said.

The rebels -- joined by tribal chiefs, refugee camp and even teachers -- gathered despite the government's efforts to stop them. Sudanese warplanes bombed a preliminary rebel conference in December. Khartoum also tried to persuade some prominent SLA members from attending the more significant meeting here later this week.

The chief goal of the desert conference is to avoid a repeat of the Darfur peace agreement signed last May in Abuja, Nigeria, by the Sudanese government and a single rebel leader -- who was under intense international pressure to come to terms.

Most rebels and civilians in Darfur rejected the deal, saying it provided no guarantee the government would halt the atrocities by janjaweed miitias.

More than 200,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003, when the ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-led central government, accusing it of discrimination and neglect.

Some 2.5 million people have fled their villages, the U.N. says. They now live in refugee camps, squatter's settlements and villages in Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic.

Despite U.N. efforts, the chaos and violence have worsened in other areas of Darfur in recent months -- as the government and the janjaweed have mounted fresh attacks on rebels and civilians.

This rebel-held territory, by contrast, seemed peaceful. Here, unlike other areas in the region, children could walk through villages without armed guards keeping watch.

Aid groups blame the rebels for some of the current fighting and say rebels hijack aid vehicles. But commanders at the meeting denied that, accusing bandits or janjaweed of staging the attacks.

About 7,000 African Union peacekeepers have been deployed to enforce the peace accord, brokered by the African Union. But they are overwhelmed by the scale of their task. Al-Naby said the rebels don't trust the AU, and want U.N. peacekeepers to halt the violence. Sudan has rejected that proposal.

SLA leaders, meanwhile, say they plan to push for a new round of peace talks with the Sudanese government in Khartoum. They warn of a massive campaign against government-controlled towns and other targets if Khartoum refuses to negotiate. "Time is on our side," al-Naby said.