by Ian Timberlake
KHARTOUM, April 20, 2012 (AFP) - Rebels in Sudan's Blue Nile said on Friday that they had killed 79 government troops and militiamen in two ambushes in the ethnically divided state near the border with South Sudan.
The attacks came on Tuesday and Wednesday in roughly the same area, mountainous terrain about 35 kilometres (20 miles) south of the state capital Ed Damazin, said Arnu Ngutulu Lodi, spokesman for the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N).
The group, which was a civil war ally of the former rebels who now rule independent South Sudan, has been fighting for several months in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, both of which border the South.
Sudan's army spokesman could not immediately be reached.
Lodi, whose forces deny being supported by the South, said there has been an upsurge in fighting in Blue Nile since border clashes between Sudan and South Sudan escalated last week with waves of air strikes hitting the South, and Juba seizing the north's Heglig oil hub on April 10.
Heglig is part of South Kordofan.
Lodi alleged Khartoum is using the Heglig standoff as an opportunity to mobilise militias and other fighters against the SPLM-N. "That's how we see it," he said.
The border fighting between the two neighbouring states has sparked fears of all-out war.
Lodi said 67 troops and militia died in one ambush on a troop convoy, with 12 more killed in the second attack.
"In one of the ambushes we lost three martyrs and two wounded," Lodi said, adding five rebels were wounded in the other attack.
Rebel forces took nine prisoners, he added.
Access to the region is restricted and such figures cannot be verified.
"We followed their preparations... from Damazin and that's why we were successful," even though the government forces tried to disguise themselves as rebels, Lodi charged.
Last week, the insurgents said they had killed 13 government soldiers, with the loss of one rebel, in an ambush and subsequent six-hour battle 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of Ed Damazin.
The government denied the losses.
Foreign aid workers say that a relentless bombing campaign by Khartoum has prevented agriculture and that 200,000 to 250,000 people face food shortages in South Kordofan, with similar hunger expected in Blue Nile state in August.
Sudan has cited security concerns in severely controlling access for foreign relief agencies to both war zones.
Sources said late last month that a joint aid plan from the African Union, Arab League and United Nations was being finalised with Sudan. But there has been no announcement about completion of the deal.
The US special envoy on Sudan and South Sudan, Princeton Lyman, said on Thursday that Sudan had agreed "in principle" to allow assistance into South Kordofan.
He called on authorities in Khartoum to show that they are serious about putting the plan into action, amid fears it will soon be too late due to rain.
"I pressed again for the government to prove this and prove it rapidly because the rainy season is nearly upon us," Lyman told reporters in Washington by telephone from Khartoum.
"They have said yes in principle but they've got questions about its implementation."