The Sudanese army said Sunday that it killed the leader of the main Darfur rebel group in fighting earlier this week, touting his death as a key victory against a powerful rebel force that once threatened Sudan's capital.
Khalil Ibrahim led the Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement, or JEM, the most organized and effective military force in Darfur, the western region torn by conflict since 2003. The group did not join a peace deal signed last year in Doha, Qatar, between other Darfur rebel groups and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's government in Khartoum.
The military said Ibrahim was wounded Thursday during a military offensive in North Kordofan state, which borders Darfur. The government said he died of his wounds Saturday and that rebels quickly buried him. The government did not say how it confirmed his death.
JEM representatives could not immediately be reached to comment. If Ibrahim's death is confirmed by the group, it would be a serious blow to JEM, which has on several occasions threatened to bring down al-Bashir's regime in Khartoum by advancing toward the capital.
Sudanese Information Minister Abdullah Massar said Ibrahim's death sends a message to rebel groups "to listen to the voice of wisdom and join the peace process."
"Our doors are open, and the Doha agreement is open," Massar said Sunday.
Darfur has been in turmoil since 2003, when ethnic African rebels accusing the Arab-dominated Sudanese government of discrimination took up arms against it. The Khartoum government is accused of retaliating by unleashing Arab militias on civilians -- a charge the government denies.
The conflict has tapered off since 2009, but the U.N. estimates 300,000 people died and 2.7 million have been displaced. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has issued an international arrest warrant for al-Bashir for his alleged role in crimes against humanity in Darfur.