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Sudan: Border tensions rise before South's independence

Many fear Khartoum government plans to seize territory before the South's independence on July 9.

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Soldiers from the UN peacekeeping in Abyei, Sudan, in May 23, 2008. More than 100,000 people have been displaced from the town by recent fighting. (Jennie Matthew/AFP/Getty Images)

JUBA, Sudan — Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, already wanted for genocide and war crimes in Darfur, faces fresh allegations of ethnic cleansing, murder and rape for his army’s ongoing attacks in border areas just weeks ahead of southern Sudan’s July 9 independence.

In its latest aggression, the South accused Khartoum of bombing a village in the oil-producing southern border state of Unity late last week, killing at least three people. A southern army spokesman said the attack could herald an attempt to seize territory.

“This area is deep inside South Sudan and is a move by Khartoum to control the area and create a de facto border to control our oil fields,” said Colonel Phillip Aguer.

Human rights groups, including Hollywood actor George Clooney's Satellite Sentinel Project, have accused Bashir of ethnic cleansing in the disputed border town of Abyei after Khartoum invaded the area with tanks, soldiers and militias on May 21.

Tensions have been rising in Abyei since January when a referendum on whether the territory would join the North or the South was cancelled after the two sides failed to agree on who was eligible to vote.

Last month the entire southern Ngok Dinka population fled Abyei leaving the town occupied by northern troops and allied Arab Misseriya nomads. The invasion and occupation has caused at least 106,000 people in the region to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.

“I received allegations of killings, rape and other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment during and subsequent to the attack,” said United Nations human rights expert Mohamed Othman Chande last week after visiting Abyei.

Chande urged Khartoum to allow investigators to verify the claims, a request that has so far been denied by northern forces that have an iron grip on Abyei.

In Juba, South Sudan's capital-in-waiting, there is little doubt that Bashir is re-deploying the brutal tactics that have characterised the fighting in Darfur since 2003, tactics that led to his indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Asked whether war crimes had been committed in Abyei, South Sudan's information minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin,  replied: “What do you call it? When a government that is supposed to protect civilians instead bombs them, destroys their homes and creates a humanitarian disaster in a deliberate manner?"

Benjamin told GlobalPost that Abyei "poses a threat which can be a source of insecurity or even throw people back to war.” 

Benjamin described as “a victory,” a U.N. Security Council statement this month demanding the withdrawal of northern forces. But Bashir has so far defied all calls to back off, including ones made by the U.S. and Great Britain, two key sponsors of the 2005 peace deal that ended 22 years of civil war.

Abyei is not the only place along the un-demarcated 1,300-mile border to see recent fighting.

In the northern state of South Kordofan a disputed local election ratcheted up tensions, which erupted in gun battles between northern soldiers and rebels who fought alongside the South during the civil war. Air raids and artillery assaults have also been reported.

The links to Darfur are impossible to ignore: The northern candidate, whose disputed victory in May’s election for governor sparked the violence, is Ahmad Harun, a former interior minister who is accused of unleashing the murderous ‘janjaweed’ militias and is also wanted — alongside his president — for war crimes.

On Thursday, the United Nations reported ongoing gunfire and looting in the town of Kadugli in Southern Kordofan. A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said that a Catholic church where civilians had been sheltering was attacked.

Aid workers have been evacuated and up to 40,000 residents have fled the town. Another 10,000 people are huddled around a U.N. military base in the hope of shelter and protection.

They may not get much. During last month’s invasion of Abyei, Zambian peacekeepers hid in their fortified compound behind razor wire while the killing, looting and burning went on. Only after two days did they venture out on patrol.

The U.N. has launched an investigation into the behavior of those peacekeepers. But this is not the first time U.N. peacekeppers have been accused of abandoning the local population in Abyei. People there remember how the "blue helmets" fled in helicopters the last time Khartoum invaded and razed the town in 2008.

Analysts say that the outbreaks of violence and Bashir’s aggressive posturing are part of a strategy to strengthen his hand in ongoing negotiations over the boundaries and conditions of the coming partition.

The hardest talks will be over the sharing of oil revenues. While most of Sudan’s 500,000 barrels a day is drilled in the south, the only way to transport the oil is in pipelines that go north. The two sides must work together if either is to profit. Negotiations are also underway on sharing of $37 billion of foreign debt, the issue of citizenship rights and the delineation of the border. 

Benjamin, the information minister, insisted in an interview that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which fought the civil war and has ruled the South since the peace, would not rise to Khartoum’s provocations: “We will show restraint and will not close the door on dialogue.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/africa/110613/sudan-tensions-abyei-juba