New rebel group opens offensive in southern Sudan

McClatchy NewspapersApril 19, 2011 

KADUGLI, Sudan — A new rebellion broke out Tuesday in southern Sudan, offering yet another threat to the world's newest nation even before its birth.

The rebellion began when land mines blew up a convoy of military trucks in southern Sudan's Unity state, followed by an attack later in the day on the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the official military of southern Sudan.

A spokesman for the South Sudan Liberation Army, the new rebel group, hailed the attacks as "the start of the offensive."

"The government has failed miserably. It must go," said Bol Gatkuoth Kol, the spokesman.

In January, southern Sudanese voted overwhelmingly to close the book on decades of war with Sudan's northern government by separating and forming a new country. The right to secede was granted under a U.S.-backed 2005 peace deal between Sudan's black African south and Arab government in the north. Official southern independence is scheduled for July.

Yet southern Sudan barely had time to celebrate before heavy internal violence broke out, first in a series of mutinies by northern-aligned southern militias, and then as dissident military commanders turned against the southern government. Hundreds have been killed in scattered fighting since.

The rebel groups had begun to coalesce under the top command of rebel George Athor, a former deputy chief of staff of the southern army who took up arms a year ago after losing a gubernatorial election. His group is called the South Sudan Democratic Movement.

The SSLA, however, is a different rebel army, under the command of Peter Gatdet, a onetime senior commander of the southern Sudanese army with a storied history in the war. In a statement last week explaining his decision to rebel, Gatdet accused the southern government of tribal nepotism, corruption, undemocratic rule and mismanagement of the military.

Gatdet, considered one of the south's most able field commanders, has since united the rebel militias in Unity state under his command. Athor's militias operate on the other side of the White Nile River and its swamplands, in neighboring Jonglei and Upper Nile states.

"We are coordinating very closely," Kol said. "Of course, we are fighting the same enemy."

The southern military accuses the northern government of masterminding the uprisings, arming the rebels, and offering them passage to the south and refuge in the north.

"It is a declaration of war by the north, in my point of view," said SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer. He said the nation's politicians had to decide what action to take next. "We are waiting for the (southern) government to respond."

Mayom county, the home area of Gatdet and where Tuesday's fighting began, borders northern Sudan. Aguer said the rebels were using the north's Heglig oil fields as a base to launch their attack into southern Sudan.

The rebels called the accusations of northern support "ridiculous lies."

"We were very far from Heglig. We were actually laughing at them when we heard this over the radio," said Kol, who said the rebels are receiving arms from defectors and sympathizers within the southern Sudan army.

During the long civil war, the northern government used divide-and-rule tactics to weaken the southern rebellion, arming southern breakaway militias to fight against the main southern Sudanese force.

Since the 2005 peace deal, the former rebel southern government has regularly blamed its old wartime foes for internal southern clashes.

The wave of violence has killed more than 800 people in the south so far this year, according to the United Nations. Human Rights Watch has accused both southern Sudan's military and one of the rebel militias of abusing and killing civilians during the counterinsurgency campaigns.

The tribal nature of the new rebellion poses a special danger to the nascent southern government. Almost all of Gadet's rebels are Nuer, southern Sudan's second-largest tribe. The biggest tribe, the Dinka, dominate the southern leadership. During the war, the southern Sudan rebel force split bloodily between the Dinka and Nuer, and wounds of that infighting remain raw.

Unity state was one of the fiercest battlegrounds during the war, in part due to the state's oil wealth. Gatdet and most of his commanders fought at one time or another under the command of warlord Paulino Matip, who allied with the northern government and helped clear Unity state for oil exploration.

Both sides gave competing accounts of Tuesday's fighting. According to the southern Sudan army, the land mine explosion killed two drivers, while the rebels said nearly 20 soldiers died. Both sides confirm direct combat later in that day in Mayom's Boang locality.

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

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