KHARTOUM, Sudan - The Sudanese army said Sunday that it killed the leader of the main Darfur rebel group in fighting last 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 that 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 for 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 Bashir's regime 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."
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 government is accused of retaliating by unleashing Arab militias on civilians, an allegation it denies.
The conflict has tapered off since 2009, but the United Nations estimates that 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have been displaced. The International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands, has issued an international arrest warrant for Bashir for his alleged role in crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Sudan's information minister said Sunday that 30 people were killed with Ibrahim. An army statement carried by Sudan's official SUNA news agency said Ibrahim and several associates were killed in Wad Banda, about 440 miles west of Khartoum.
"The army cut all paths for the group as it was retreating and trying to cross into South Sudan to reorganize its forces," Sudanese army spokesman Col. Sawarmy Khaled said. "Our gallant armed forces were able to kill rebel Khalil Ibrahim along with some of his associates."
South Sudan seceded from the north in July to become the world's newest nation.
A security officer with the U.N. mission in Darfur, speaking on condition of anonymity, said JEM mostly operates out of North Kordofan state and no longer has an official presence in Darfur.
Ibrahim is believed to have recently returned after years in exile in Libya, where he enjoyed the patronage of Moammar Gadhafi before the Libyan dictator was ousted and killed in October.