KHARTOUM, Sudan -- The Sudanese government is quietly escalating oil exploration inside the Darfur region, a step that has led to protests from rebel leaders in a volatile area where more than 200,000 people have been killed during three years of fighting.
Political and humanitarian experts say oil in Darfur could deliver much-needed development and investment to the region, but attempts to hunt for oil could intensify fighting by raising the stakes in an already war-torn area. The government has recently awarded three new oil concessions in the region.
Rebel leaders say oil exploration in Darfur should be postponed until a peace deal is signed by all parties and stability returns.
"We are still fighting for our lives and our country," said rebel commander Jar al-Neby, who represents a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army. "We need water right now, not oil. We can talk about these issues after peace comes."
Some political analysts believe that untapped oil reserves might have been an underlying factor in the Darfur conflict all along, explaining why a seemingly barren wasteland of western Sudan would spark such a bitter tug-of-war between government forces and rebels, eventually drawing the intervention of international players such as the United States, Libya and the United Nations.
"When you don't find a reasonable explanation, this is what you have to conclude," said Eltayeb Hag Ateya, head of the Peace Studies Institute at Khartoum University. "I believe there must be something else - oil or some natural resource - about Darfur."
Salih Osman, a human rights attorney from Darfur, said that government suspicions about oil in Darfur explain why regime officials reacted so strongly to rebel attacks in the region, starting in 2003. "I fear this will only make matters worse," he said of the newly expanded exploration.
The government is accused of arming Arab militias, called janjaweed, to attack and destroy scores of Darfur villages over the past three years. Government officials deny supporting the janjaweed and blame rebels for the violence.
A team of Middle Eastern oil companies, including Saudi Arabia-based Al Qahtani Sons Group and Ansan Wikfsa, based in Yemen, agreed in November to spend $43 million for drilling rights to the 125,000-square-mile territory. The largely uninhabited area, known as Block 12a, is north of where much of Darfur's current fighting is occurring.
The government's decision to offer new concessions in Darfur is part of an aggressive search for oil in the country's north.
Since discovering oil in the 1970s, Sudan has become one of Africa's biggest producers. But most of the current production - worth an estimated $6 billion a year - is based in the south, and a 2005 peace agreement with former southern rebels gives southern Sudanese the right to break apart from the rest of the country in 2011, taking much of the oil with them.
"There's a real scramble to find oil in the north," according to a government oil official, who like several others interviewed requested that his name be withheld due to the government's sensitivity about speaking publicly. "The likelihood that there is oil in Darfur is quite high."
Edmund Sanders writes for the Los Angeles Times.