In May of this year, Darfuri rebels based in Libya barrelled across the border in some 160 vehicles, breaking through Sudanese defence lines and giving the lie to the widely touted notion that conflict in Sudan’s vast western region was finally over.

The Sudanese Armed Forces and their allied militia, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), managed to exact some losses on the Mini Minawi faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA-MM). But the rebels, after two years spent mostly in Libya and South Sudan reconsolidating their forces, managed to achieve what the RSF had thwarted in 2015: place a significant number of troops back in Darfur.

While the attack may have been only of modest strategic significance in Darfur itself, it was a good time for the SLA-MM to leave Libya. There, Darfuri rebels were growing tired of fighting as mercenaries in a foreign country, one where they might easily find themselves taking on their compatriots enlisted by other parties to Libya’s multifaceted conflict.

The chaos of Libya had also given the rebels an opportunity to re-arm sufficiently to attempt another incursion.

The timing was also propitious because of major political developments further afield. Sudan’s diplomatic situation has been weakened by the row between two of its main allies: Qatar and Saudi Arabia (who are also at odds in Libya). The attack took place shortly ahead of a scheduled US decision on whether to fully lift, after a six months’ easing, its economic sanctions on Sudan, and just as the hybrid UN/African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) announced a 25 per cent reduction of its contingent, amounting to 5,000 personnel.

The attack neatly laid bare the fragility of the narrative put forward recently by the US and by elements within the UN – and by Khartoum long before – namely that rebels no longer operate in Darfur and that peace has been restored there.

Still, the messages emanating from the UN are mixed. On July 10, the UN Country Team in Sudan, which includes UN agencies working on development, emergency, recovery, and transition, called for a “positive decision” on sanctions relief, citing a “marked improvement in humanitarian access”.

Yet civilians in Darfur still face “violence and criminality”, the UN’s then head of peacekeeping told the Security Council in January. Hervé Ladsous pointed in particular to the “widespread proliferation of weapons and the inadequacy of law and justice institutions” as well as inter-communal violence over land, water, and other resources. This violence and tension prevents the return home of some 2.1 million internally displaced people, according to an April overview from the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

A growing number of Darfuris consequently are making their way to Europe throughrisky crossings of the Sahara and the Mediterranean.

UNAMID is well aware of this continuing violence and of who is behind it: the RSF, which are no less abusive than the infamous janjawid used to be in 2003-2004. Two years ago, Human Rights Watch accused UNAMID of failing to report the magnitude of RSF’s crimes in Darfur.

The UN/AU mission in Darfur is set to shrink by a quarter, or 5,000 personnel

Given the fiction of improved security, “the only reason” UNAMID is downsizing, according to one UN official, “is that donors have no more appetite for it”.

What happens with the 20-year-old US sanctions is less certain. President Barack Obama eased them days before leaving office in January, reviving a long-running debate over Sudan policy between fans of carrots and those of sticks.

The writer is an independent researcher on Sudan, South Sudan, and Chad