Islamist fighters from Mali have reached Sudan’s western Darfur region after fleeing French air strikes and advancing ground troops, a Sudanese rebel group said on Friday.
French troops have pushed militants out of cities and into desert and mountain hideouts in a four-week operation to prevent Mali becoming a base for attacks in Africa and Europe.
“We have confirmed that some Mali fighters are in Darfur,” said Gibreel Adam, spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel group in Darfur.
Western governments fear that al Qaeda-linked fighters will cross African borders as they seek refuge.
Law and order has collapsed in large parts of Darfur since mainly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government in 2003.
Adam said an unknown number of fighters from Mali had entered Darfur through Sudan’s remote southwestern border with the Central African Republic.
“They are in Um Dafuq and other areas in the north and south of western Darfur,” he said.
The Sudanese foreign ministry and army could not be reached for comment.
Radio Dabanga, a Netherlands-based Darfuri station, said local sources had reported the arrival of Mali fighters in North Darfur.
The fighters, distinguished by their look and language, had arrived with armed Land Cruisers in Kutum and Adumur in North Darfur, the station said.
France has deployed nearly 4,000 ground troops as well as warplanes and armored vehicles in Operation Serval which has broken the Islamist militants’ 10-month grip on northern towns.
It is now due to hand over to a U.N.-backed African force.