By Khalid Abdelaziz
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan's armed forces have killed the leader of Darfur's most powerful rebel group, state media said on Sunday, dealing a severe blow to insurgents in the remote western region in their nearly decade-long war with Khartoum.
The Darfur conflict has rumbled on since mainly non-Arab insurgents took up arms in 2003, saying the central government had left them out of the political and economic power structure and was favoring local Arab tribes.
Khalil Ibrahim, head of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), emerged as one of the most powerful rebel commanders. In 2008, his fighters drove across the arid western terrain and launched a shock attack on Khartoum, killing over 200 people.
Sudan's authorities have long hunted Ibrahim, who had taken refuge in neighboring Libya under Muammar Gaddafi until the leader's overthrow deprived him of his safe haven, and had refused to sign a Qatar-brokered peace deal.
Al-Sawarmi Khalid, Sudan's armed forces spokesman, said government forces killed Ibrahim early on Sunday morning as he tried to cross into South Sudan, which seceded in July under a 2005 peace deal that ended a separate, decades-long civil war.
"The armed forces clashed in a direct confrontation with Khalil Ibrahim's rebel forces, and were able to eliminate Khalil Ibrahim, who died with a group of commanders," Khalid told state television.
JEM officials did not answer phone calls for comment on Sunday, but Al Jazeera television quoted Ibrahim's brother as confirming the death, saying he died in an air raid on his military convoy.
The death of Ibrahim, often described as commanding and charismatic, could be a major blow to JEM, although tightly restricted access to Sudan's conflict zones has made it hard to gauge the actual strength and internal unity of insurgents.
"Khalil's death is an important symbolic victory for the Government of Sudan - JEM has long been the most formidable military opposition in Darfur," Aly Verjee, a researcher at the Rift Valley Institute think tank , said.
"I don't think JEM will disappear with Khalil's death, but there's a risk that JEM fractures without his leadership, as has happened with the SLM (Sudan Liberation Movement) and other rebel movements in Darfur."
FIGHTING GOES ON
The United Nations has said as many as 300,000 people may have died in Darfur, where Khartoum mobilized troops and mostly Arab militias to crush the uprising. Khartoum puts the death toll at 10,000.
While violence has died down since the mass killings reported in the early days of the conflict, law and order have collapsed and the area has been hit by attacks by bandits, militias, soldiers and tribal groups in recent years.
Some 2 million people have fled the fighting, the United Nations says.
Various Darfur rebel groups, including two factions of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), have fought on despite a huge United Nations-African Union peacekeeping operation set up in 2007.
Qatar brokered a peace deal which Sudan signed this year with the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM), an umbrella association of smaller groups.
But JEM and the other major rebels groups have refused to sign the document, dampening hopes the region will soon see lasting peace.
In November, Darfur's main insurgent groups said they had formed an alliance to topple President Omar al-Bashir with other rebels in two border states, where fighting broke out around the time of South Sudan's independence.
Islamist in its outlook, Ibrahim's group has cooperated in the past with the more secular SLA rebels, although their different ideologies and histories have led to tensions.
JEM has claimed military advances as recently as last week, saying on Saturday its fighters clashed with government militias in parts of the North Kordofan state and were planning to advance on the capital Khartoum.
The report could not be independently verified.
Ibrahim died during a clash in North Kordofan's Wad Banda area, where authorities have accused JEM of attacking civilians and looting in the region, Sudan's state news agency SUNA said. The rebel group denies the charges.
The International Criminal Court has charged Bashir with masterminding genocide and other crimes in the region, accusations Khartoum dismisses as political.
(Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Jon Hemming)