Clashes erupt in southern Sudan town as split begins

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 4, 2011 

JUBA, Sudan — Clashes in a key provincial capital in southern Sudan Thursday and Friday have killed at least nine people, just days after officials announced that Sudan would divide into two nations following a southern referendum on independence last month.

The fighting flared as the complex process gets under way, a sign of the troubles that remain after January's peaceful vote, part of a U.S.-backed peace deal designed to end decades of civil war in Africa's largest country.

The clashes in Malakal erupted between different southern elements within the Sudanese Armed Forces, the northern army, which must now withdraw completely from the south ahead of southern Sudan's independence in July.

On one side were southern militias, once used by the north to fight against the main southern rebel force during the war and which were then integrated into the northern army following a 2005 peace deal. They clashed against other Sudanese Armed Forces members, most of whom are southerners also, but who are deployed as Sudanese soldiers.

Both sides fought with tanks and other weaponry near the army barracks on the outskirts of Malakal, according to eyewitnesses who spoke to McClatchy by phone.

Seven civilians and two soldiers have been confirmed dead, and 22 are injured, said Bartholomew Pakwan Abwol, spokesman for southern Sudan's Upper Nile state. Malakal is the capital.

There's still no access to the site of the fighting, so the total casualties aren't known, Abwol said.

A Sudanese national employee for the United Nations refugee agency is among those dead, confirmed U.N. spokesman Kouider Zerrouk.

The presence of the militias have made Malakal, near the north-south border, a volatile place since the peace accord was signed six years ago. Full-out clashes have occurred on two other occasions, in 2006 and 2009.

Half of Malakal is controlled by the SAF; the other half by the Southern Sudan military, the ex-rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army. Technically, both are part of an integrated force known as JIUs, which must now be dismantled.

According to a U.N. official, who couldn't be named because he wasn't authorized to speak on the matter, the latest clashes broke out after the SAF barracks received orders on Feb. 2 from army headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan's northern capital, to pack up camp and relocate to the north with their military equipment.

From there, the southerners are to be disarmed, demobilized and returned south, just one piece of the complicated re-shuffling involved in dividing Africa's largest country over the next five months.

"One faction (of the SAF base) is advocating to return with the equipment by Khartoum as instructed. But the others (the militias) are opposed to this move," the U.N. official said.

The militias don't want to be disarmed of all their weaponry and don't trust the Sudanese government to give them the discharge benefits promised once inside northern territory, the U.N. official said.

Many of the militiamen are loyal to Gabriel Tanginye, a southern warlord who was promoted to a general in the SAF and who's blamed for the 2006 and 2009 clashes. Last year, he was granted amnesty by southern Sudan's leader, Salva Kiir, and began talks with Kiir to return to the south. Tanginye's loyalties still aren't clear.

"They (the militias) have been causing trouble since 2006," said Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the south's SPLA, which didn't take part in the fighting. "This time, they have turned their guns against their former masters."

The discharged southern militia members will have the option to join the SPLA or to become civilians, Aguer said.

The problem of southerners still left in the northern army is only one element of Sudan's messy equation. A sizable part of the SPLA remains north of the border as well, mostly in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, two states largely controlled by the SPLA during the war and granted special status during the peace deal.

Both states were promised vaguely defined "popular consultations" to determine their relationship with the Khartoum government. Those processes have been delayed, so the SPLA says it won't yet withdraw from those areas.

"This is now being negotiated at the political level," Aguer said.

Another area along the border, Abyei, remains hotly contested because it was supposed to have a special referendum, but it was never organized. Clashes in Abyei last month killed at least 41 people, according to figures given by both sides.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting from Sudan is supported in part by Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)

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