Border fighting intensifies as split looms
JUBA, Sudan – The closer Sudan’s big divide gets, the more precarious it appears.
With only one month to go until the new nation of South Sudan is born, events in wider Sudan seem to be careening further out of control, as border violence escalates.
Since the south’s overwhelming vote for independence in January, tensions have risen steadily between Sudan’s Arab northern and African southern governments. In the past few weeks, that friction has erupted into a wave of violence that threatens the peaceful gains during years of international diplomacy.
“The escalating violence around the north-south border brings the two sides closer to war than they have been in years,” said Jon Temin, Sudan program director at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
The latest series of clashes began in earnest May 21, when northern Sudan forces invaded and captured the southern-held disputed border district Abyei. The northern government has refused to withdraw from the area, despite international condemnation.
Then the northern government issued a June 1 ultimatum for all forces previously aligned to the southern military in two key northern border states, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, to withdraw south of its border. Nearly all of these forces were African northerners who fought as part of the southern rebel force to create a united, democratic Sudan, but are now caught between the seceding south and the despotic north.
This ultimatum passed without resolution, and clashes began June 5 in Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan, and spread throughout the Nuba Mountains area, which during the war was subjected to Darfur-like ethnic warfare. The clashes began when the northern army began to forcibly disarm Nuba soldiers who previously allied with the southern rebels.
According to an eyewitness, heavy northern machinery – tanks, machine gun-mounted trucks, rocket-propelled grenades – clashed in the Kadugli streets with the Nuba fighters, who eventually had to flee the city.
The conflict has since spread across the Nuba Mountains.
“The security situation in Kadugli and its surroundings remains volatile and tense,” said Kouider Zerrouk, the acting spokesman for the United Nations mission in Sudan. Heavy artillery was heard in Kadugli vicinity Thursday and Friday, he said, and aerial bombing struck a number of Nuba areas Thursday.
The fighting followed weeks of rising political temperatures in the central highlands flashpoint, after the opposition Nuba-backed political party refused to accept state election results that declared Ahmed Haroun – indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur – as gubernatorial winner by a slim margin over former rebel leader Abdulaziz al Hilu.
In a rare foreign media visit to the Nuba Mountains by McClatchy news service in April, al Hilu said that President Omar al Bashir’s party would never relinquish control over the state, and warned Haroun had plans to “repeat the same attempts of genocide, of extermination of the people” as he allegedly committed in Darfur.
Al Hilu and much of the Nuba find themselves in a difficult squeeze. They fought within the southern rebel group that now holds power in south Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, during Sudan’s 21-year civil war that ended in 2005. But their homeland is undisputedly in northern territory.
Technically, the concerns of the Nuba rebels were supposed to be addressed in the 2005 U.S.-backed peace accord, which ended the war and promised elections to be followed by a state legislature-led negotiation process with the national government. But after their May election defeat, and with their friends in the south choosing to secede, al Hilu and the Nuba are now left holding what they now consider an empty document.
All this is only raising the stakes for Sudan’s split in July.
South Sudan’s leaders are likely to resist retaliating against northern provocations until at least July 9, when the world is set to recognize the Republic of South Sudan as a nation.
This strategy also has required the south’s military to distance itself from the actions of its former Nuba soldiers – who it says have deserted and are no longer under command – to avoid giving the north a pretext to declare war on the south.
The violence compounds the troubles for a land already battling deep war-inflicted poverty, where inhabitants live in mud huts and survive on subsistence farming.
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