GENEVA (AP) - An assault on the town of Sirba in Sudan's Darfur region earlier this month was apparently "a deliberate and unprovoked attack" by government forces against innocent civilians, a United Nations human rights official said Friday.
"Hundreds of armed men, many in military uniforms and some in civilian clothes, on horses, camels and in several trucks and Toyota Land Cruisers, attacked the civilian population," said Praveen Randhawa, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The African Union had said previously that the Nov. 11 attack was a raid on a refugee camp and neighboring villages by government-allied militiamen known as janjaweed.
Her comments seemed part of what appears to be a new strategy by the Geneva-based U.N. human rights department to report details of atrocities as they occur, perhaps in response to Sudan's expulsion last month of chief U.N. envoy Jan Pronk.
Randhawa said government officials in West Darfur confirmed soldiers of the Sudanese Armed Forces used force in Sirba but contended it was a response to a rebel ambush of a troop convoy. The officials said 13 rebels were killed and eight weapons confiscated, she said.
"However, no evidence has been found to support this claim, and numerous witness accounts indicate that civilians and their homes and properties were the target of attack," Randhawa told reporters.
"Contrary to the government's claim, it appears that SAF launched a deliberate and unprovoked attack on civilians and their property in Sirba."
Eleven civilians died in the assault, including a teenage boy and a woman burned to death in a house set on fire by the attackers, she said. A 3-year-old girl was among eight civilians wounded, she said.
Randhawa added that "extensive and wanton destruction and looting of civilian property" took place during the raid on Sirba, which is in northwest Darfur close to the border with Chad.
The Sudanese officials denied militiamen were involved, but witnesses described the attackers as a mix of government soldiers and the janjaweed, she said.
Earlier this month, the office of Louise Arbour, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, released a report that said hundreds of men identified by residents as janjaweed had killed about 50 civilians in attacks on western Darfur villages.
Sudan's government has repeatedly denied sponsoring the janjaweed despite findings by U.N. investigators that it armed the militiamen.
More than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million others displaced since the conflict began in February 2003, when Darfur's ethnic African tribesmen took up arms against what they saw as decades of neglect and discrimination by the Arab government.
Peace accords signed by the government and one rebel group in May have been ignored, and the violence has escalated in recent months. The government agreed to disarm the janjaweed, but that has not happened.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for a force of 7,000 U.N.-commanded peacekeepers and 3,000 police officers to help provide security in Darfur.