Sudan Rebels Say Border Battle Killed 150 Army Troops

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Sudanese rebels said Tuesday they killed 150 government soldiers along the disputed border with South Sudan in a battle that prompted Khartoum to threaten retaliation against its newly independent neighbor.

Sudan's military denied the casualty toll and said it had killed a "huge number" of rebels, but gave no figure.

The casualties came during Sunday's "surprise attack" against a government base in the Jau area, said Arnu Ngutulu Lodi, of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N).

Rebels counted the bodies on the ground, he said, and seized three tanks along with hundreds of weapons and vehicles in the joint operation with a small number of fighters from Darfur's Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

The insurgents, who last year formed a "revolutionary front" aimed at toppling the Khartoum regime, claimed the attack in the contested Jau area -- part of an oil-rich region on the poorly defined border -- as their first combined operation against government forces.

After the Jau attack, SPLM-N rebels moved on Sunday evening into the key location of Taruje, about 20 kilometers north, and on Monday retook a government outpost at El-Ahmier, 30 kilometers southeast of the state capital Kadugli, Lodi told Agence France Presse.

Rebels had seized the el-Ahmier outpost in mid-January but the army retook it, and now it has changed hands again, he said.

Sawarmi Khaled Saad, the Sudanese army spokesman, denied rebels had taken Taruje or el-Ahmier. He said the only fighting had been around Jau, from which rebels had since withdrawn.

"Now SAF troops are clearing the area," he said.

Access to the state is heavily restricted, making independent verification difficult.

Khartoum threatened retaliation on Sunday after accusing South Sudan of backing the rebel attack on the Jau area, six kilometers inside the border, in violation of a memorandum on non-aggression and cooperation signed this month.

It said rebels accompanied by officers from South Sudan's army launched a "direct attack", but Juba denied supporting opposition groups in Sudan.

Ethnic minority insurgents in the SPLM-N fought alongside the former rebels now ruling the South.

Although political and military ties between the South and the SPLM-N have not been fully severed, "the two are now separate entities with distinct leaderships," the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss-based independent research project, said in a report late last year.

South Sudan broke away last July after an overwhelming vote for independence that followed more than two decades of war.

Border tensions have since flared, with each side accusing the other of supporting rebels within its territory, while a major dispute over oil transit fees remains unresolved.

Fighting in South Kordofan broke out in June, followed in September by a similar conflict in nearby Blue Nile state, as Khartoum moved to assert its authority in the wake of southern secession.

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