The Sudanese army says it has killed the leader of Darfur’s main rebel group, Khalil Ibrahim of the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem).

The report of his death, in fighting in the Wad Banda area of North Kordofan, could not be independently verified.

Mr Ibrahim had returned from exile in Libya after the fall of Col Muammar Gaddafi’s regime this year.

If confirmed, his death would be a major blow to the Jem, which was behind several high-profile attacks.

Sudanese army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Sad told the BBC Arabic Service that Mr Ibrahim had been killed at dawn on Sunday .

He and other rebel leaders had been trying to enter South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in July, the spokesman told Sudanese TV.

There was no immediate comment on the news from the Jem but a source close to the rebels told AFP news agency: “I’m pretty sure it’s true.”

Khartoum accused Jem of fighting for the late Libyan leader in his attempt to hold on to power.

Gaddafi’s fall in Tripoli was a blow to the rebels as he had given them sanctuary and financial and military aid, analysts say.

Mr Ibrahim founded the Jem and made it the most powerful and most heavily armed rebel group in Darfur.

Attacks launched by the group include one on the capital, Khartoum in 2008.

More than 220 people were killed when the rebels drove across the desert to Omdurman, just across the River Nile from the presidential palace.

Government troops repulsed them after heavy fighting.

Just on Saturday, the Jem said they were planning a new advance on Khartoum.

The rebels signed a ceasefire with the Sudanese government in February 2010 but abandoned peace talks soon after, accusing Khartoum’s forces of launching new raids in Darfur.

About 300,000 people have died in the conflict in Darfur since it began in 2003, the UN says.