Sudan's armed forces claimed Sunday to have killed the head of the western Darfur region's most powerful rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
The armed forces clashed in a direct confrontation with Khalil Ibrahim's rebel forces, and were able to eliminate Khalil Ibrahim, Al-Sawarmi Khalid, Sudan's armed forces spokesman told state television.
Ibrahim's death, if confirmed, could represent a serious blow to the rebel group, although tightly restricted access to Darfur and Sudan's other conflict zones makes it almost impossible to accurately gauge the real strength and internal unity of insurgent groups.
The armed forces spokesman said Ibrahim and other leaders had been trying to enter South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in July under a 2005 peace deal that ended a separate, decades-long civil war.
JEM could not immediately be reached for comment.
Mainly non-Arab insurgents in Darfur took up arms against Khartoum in 2003, claiming the central government had neglected the remote region and was favouring local Arab tribes.
The United Nations has said as many as 300,000 people may have died in the Darfur conflict. Khartoum puts the death toll at 10,000.
JEM - now considered the most powerful rebel group in terms of military strength - said in a statement Saturday its fighters had clashed with government militias in parts of the North Kordofan state and planned to advance on the capital Khartoum.
The group said in September that Ibrahim had returned from Libya where he had been since May 2010, when neighbouring Chad refused him entry.
JEM has refused to sign a Qatar-brokered peace agreement which Sudan signed with the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM), an umbrella association of smaller groups.
In November, JEM said it had formed an alliance with other insurgents in Darfur and in two of Sudan's conflict-stricken border states.
(Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Michael Roddy)