A United Nations peacekeeper holds position during a patrol in the South Sudanese town of Malakal, Upper Nile State, which is currently held by anti-government forces. Picture: Andreea Campeanu

Khartoum - Leaders of a Sudanese counter-insurgency unit on Wednesday dismissed accusations that their men committed abuses in Darfur.

“We didn't loot. We didn't burn any villages. We didn't rape,” General Abbas Abdelaziz, who heads the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), told reporters.

“All the allegations against us are lies,” an angry Mohammed Hamdan Dalgo, the unit's field commander, shouted.

They held the press conference a day after newspapers reported that Sudan's powerful National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) has filed a criminal complaint against former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, who heads a major opposition party, Umma.

Newspapers said NISS accused Mahdi of releasing false information about the RSF to reporters last week.

NISS, which has authority over the RSF, accused Mahdi of offences, including threatening public peace.

He reportedly accused the unit of arson and other violence against civilians, and of including “non-Sudanese” in its ranks.

The RSF role has also come under scrutiny by the European Union and UNAMID, the African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

UNAMID chief Mohamed Ibn Chambas told the UN Security Council more than a month ago that the activities of the RSF were of “particular concern” as violence rose to alarming levels in Darfur this year.

“They have perpetrated attacks on communities,” Chambas said.

European Union ambassador Tomas Ulicny told AFP last month that “we should be concerned” about the role of the RSF.

But the NISS commander countered: “It's the rebels who are destroying water resources, burning villages and committing race-based killings.

“Then they try to put the blame on us,” said Abdelaziz, wearing a uniform with a NISS shoulder patch.

The other leader, Dalgo, also known as Himeidti, appeared in plain clothes protected by a guard wearing a pistol on his hip.

An analyst, Magdi El Gizouli, has described the RSF as “almost like a mercenary army” run by Dalgo.

The “charismatic” Dalgo led a brief rebellion with several thousand of his men in late 2007 when he commanded a battalion of Border Guards, according to a 2010 report by the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss-based independent research project.

They were upset at the army's failure to pay them, it said, describing the Border Guards as the main vehicle for incorporating irregular forces into Sudan's military earlier in its war against rebels.

Non-Arab insurgents rose up in 2003, seeking an end to what they viewed as Arab elites' domination of Sudan's power and wealth.

In response, government-backed Janjaweed militiamen, recruited among the region's Arab tribes, shocked the world with atrocities against civilians.

The RSF follows in the tradition of the Border Guards and similar units, a Western diplomat told AFP.

Dalgo was tasked with recruiting the new RSF, which lacks training and is not a formal Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) unit, the diplomat said.

Sudan is implementing a strategy of “fighting a proxy war using mainly lightly armed Janjaweed, militia and other tribal armed groups,” rather than regular ground troops, said a February report by a UN panel of experts on Darfur.

Abdelaziz said that to call the RSF “Janjaweed”, as some press reports did, is an insult.

“These troops were gathered from different units and from volunteers. We selected people with fighting experience. We chose them very carefully,” he said.

“We don't have any foreigners among them.”

The total force of more than 6,000 includes 1,500 from SAF, Abdelaziz said.

Their four months of training included study of international human rights agreements and the rights of civilians in war zones, he added.

“They became professionals.”

The unit as a whole has done nothing wrong, “but sometimes an individual can commit a crime, and the media and opposition are using such individual incidents against us,” he said.