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Sudan: Arms race grows between North and South

Despite peace agreement, both sides boost weapons to prepare for war.

Soldier in Sudan
A U.N. peacekeeper mans a machine gun to protect peace talks over the Darfur territory. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images)

NAIROBI, Kenya — South Sudan is building up an armory of tanks and heavy weapons, according diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, and in the North, the Khartoum government is stocking an even more formidable pile of armaments.

Despite a peace agreement between the two sides and a looming January vote on their official separation, the weapons buildup is a worrying indication that neither side is particularly committed to peace and that both are, in fact, preparing for war.

The cables revealed that South Sudan was buying heavy weapons in 2008. Thirty-three tanks and other munitions destined for South Sudan were aboard a ship, the MV Faina, when it was hijacked by Somali pirates. At the time, the Kenyan government said the arms were headed for Kenya, but the leaked documents show that the arms were in fact going to South Sudan.

“It is a poorly kept secret that the tanks are bound for the Government of Southern Sudan,” wrote U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger in an October 2008 cable, four months before the 10,000-ton cargo ship was released in exchange for a $3 million ransom.

The cable, revealed on the WikiLeaks website this week, casts light on an illicit arms race underway ahead of a referendum due on Jan. 9 in which southern Sudanese are widely expected to vote for separation from the north in order to become independent from the Khartoum government.

A 2005 peace agreement ended the North-South civil war but mistrust and animosity continue to define relations between the mostly black Christians in the South and the predominately Arab Muslims in the North.

As international concern grows that the partition of this huge, oil-rich country may spark a return to war, it seems that both sides are preparing for just such an outcome despite arms embargoes imposed by the United Nations, the European Union and the peace agreement itself.

“Since the [peace agreement] we have seen both the North and South investing serious amounts of money in armaments and military equipment,” said Claire MacEvoy, project manager at the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based organization that tracks weapons flows into and within Sudan.

MacEvoy said that despite the attention the hijacking of the Faina brought to southern arms stockpiling, Khartoum remains a “formidable enemy” and had spent far more money to buy much more sophisticated equipment.

In the diplomatic cable, Ranneberger said that since 2007, “Kenya’s Ministry of Defense has indeed played a major role in assisting the Government of South Sudan to receive arms shipments from the Government of Ukraine.”

Researchers said that the Faina was the third arms shipment from Ukraine via Kenya in two years. Southern Sudan is a landlocked region so armaments are shipped to the port of Mombassa and then transported by rail and road to neighboring southern Sudan.

According to the Small Arms Survey, the Faina’s military cargo included 33 T-72M1 battle tanks as well as thousands of rounds of anti-tank and fragmentation rounds, six truck-mounted 122mm BM-21 multiple rocket launchers, six 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns and 36 shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenade launchers.