Defections in Darfur?

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Scott Nelson / Getty

An armed Sudanese rebel from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) arrives at the abandoned village of Chero Kasi less than an hour after Janjaweed militiamen set it ablaze in the violence plagued Darfur region September 7, 2004.

Cracks are beginning to appear in the ranks of Darfur's feared Janjaweed militia — at least that's according to leaders of the rebel forces fighting against the government-backed Arab supremacists that have rained terror on the region's ethnic African villages. Leaders of Darfur's rebel groups based in eastern Chad tell TIME that they believe several Janjaweed leaders are now close to joining the rebels. Their defection would be spurred by fear that the Sudan government may betray Janjaweed commanders to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where they would face war crimes charges. And the rebels seem remarkably ready to welcome into their ranks the men who have been the frontline troops of a vicious campaign of murder, rape, pillage and ethnic cleansing.

"The Janjaweed are part of Darfur," declares Tajeldeen Bashir Niam, general secretary of the Justice and Equality Movement (J.E.M.) — one of Darfur's two main resistance movements. "They have approached us to join us and that's what we're working for: to be united, Arab and African, for the people of Darfur. The Janjaweed are realizing the only solution to Darfur 's problems is to resist the government."

Not only would it be an act of supreme cynicism for the rebels to swell their ranks with the very men accused by the U.S. of waging genocide against Darfurians, it may also be wishful thinking to imagine a united front of fractious rebel groups and Janjaweed defectors. Still, some rebel commanders believe the situation has changed dramatically as a result of actions by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although international pressure on Khartoum has been slow in coming, with U.N. Security Council action stonewalled by China, and Sudan refusing entry to U.N. peacekeeping forces, the ICC has targeted specific leaders for prosecution. Last month, its chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked pre-trial judges to issue summonses for Ahmed Haroun, a former state interior minister, and militia commander Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb. Rebel leaders say the ICC investigation will potentially drive a wedge between Janjaweed commanders and their backers in Khartoum. At Tine, on the Darfur-Chad border, local commanders from the J.E.M. and Darfur's other rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army (S.L.A.), claim that one prominent Janjaweed commander had already changed sides, bringing with him 400 men and 10 trucks mounted with machine guns. The claim could not be verified.

"After the ICC ruling, everything changed," says Zeber Muktar Salim, a spokesman for one of the several S.L.A. factions. The J.E.M.'s head of logistics, Nasiruddin Ahmed Taendy, added: "Khartoum hired the Janjaweed to kill their brother Darfurians. Now the Janjaweed have found out they were deceived — and they suspect the government will sell them out to the I.C.C. We are expecting the numbers of defectors to increase by the day."

Rebel leaders hope that defections would weaken Khartoum's military capabilities on the ground, and even help build a united Darfur rebel army to bring down the government. But it's questionable whether such an alliance of convenience is possible, let alone capable of enduring. And if its objective is to continue a war that has already left 200,000 dead and displaced 2.5 million people, it's far from clear that it would be good news for the long-suffering Darfurians.