KHARTOUM, Sudan — Hundreds of rebels from war-ravaged Darfur clashed with Sudanese security forces on the doorstep of the capital Saturday in a dramatic widening of the 5-year-old conflict.
It was the first foray into the seat of the Sudanese government by a rebel group once confined to the western region, which is deeply scarred by the struggle between the ethnic African rebels and the Arab-dominated central government.
The country's interior minister said government forces successfully "chased" away the rebels by nightfall, about three hours after the first outbreak of violence, and killed a rebel leader and his aide. State television showed footage of the fighters in handcuffs and soldiers driving confiscated jeeps through empty streets, saluting colleagues standing at attention.
A rebel leader denied his fighters suffered heavy casualties and said some took up positions inside Khartoum, while others remained in its twin city, Omdurman.
"They will continue their mission," rebel spokesman Ahmed Hussain told the Associated Press. "They successfully destroyed a lot of tanks."
TV footage showed burning trucks, smoke billowing over Omdurman and at least two bodies sprawled in a dusty street and slumped in the front seat of a convertible jeep.
"I saw dead people in the streets and cars burned," said Hatem, an Omdurman resident who refused to give his last name fearing government reprisal. He said most of the victims wore turbans distinctive to rebel areas.
With just a few thousand members, the Justice and Equality Movement is outnumbered and far less equipped than Sudan's military, believed to be more than 100,000 strong, but the group still represents the most significant military threat to the Sudanese government in Darfur.
JEM once confined its activities to Darfur, where the rebels took up arms against the central government in 2003 complaining of discrimination and neglect.