JUBA, Sudan — The Sudanese army appeared poised Thursday to launch a ground offensive in central Sudan, spiking fears of another violent crackdown on a non-Arab ethnic group.
Aid workers fleeing South Kordofan state told harrowing tales of Nuba tribesmen being gunned down in the streets of the region's capital, Kadugli, and of women and children seeking refuge in the Nuba Mountains.
"Those coming in are saying, 'Whenever they see you are a black person, they kill you,'" according to one aid worker who recently left the area, but asked not to be named because she hopes to return.
The special envoy to Sudan, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, said the U.S. government, which brokered a 2005 agreement to end decades of civil war in Sudan, doesn't have enough information on the ground to call the campaign "ethnic cleansing."
But he said the fighting is continuous and that the Sudanese government effort to seize control of the area ahead of the July 9 division of the country into two threatens U.S. promises normalize relations with Sudan and remove it from Washington's list of terror sponsors of if the northern government allows the division to go forward.
Under the peace agreement, Sudan will be divided into an Arab-ruled state in the north and an African-ruled one in the south. The Nuba region, which was sympathetic to the south throughout the civil war, falls north of the new border line.
Aid workers who recently left the area said that so far most of the violence has occurred in major towns now controlled by government forces, while the rural Nuba Mountains are still controlled by a former rebel Nuba force known as the Sudan People's Liberation Army. If the outgunned SPLA forces fold under a full-fledged military assault, however, they fear that an ethnic slaughter could spread across most of the Nuba-populated areas.
A total of 280 military vehicles were seen pouring into Kadugli from June 12-15, according to confidential military situation reports prepared by the United Nations mission in Sudan and obtained by McClatchy. These new deployments are in addition to a continued buildup of troops in the days and even weeks before.
Most of the vehicles were Toyota Land Cruisers carrying troops, while others were ammunition trucks and artillery guns, according to the reports.
"Preparations for a major ground offensive against SPLA in SKS (South Kordofan state) are increasingly becoming clearer," warned a dispatch from the U.N. base in Kadugli dated Wednesday. "The situation is likely to deteriorate further over the next few days."
A Nuba aid worker who said he was in Kadugli at the start of clashes on June 5 described what he said was a planned campaign of ethnic cleansing. The Sudanese army and Arab militias descended on the homes of known Nuba opposition sympathizers and executed them on the spot, he said. Bloodbaths unfolded in the Kadugli streets, he said, as Nuba were shot as they attempted to flee.
An Arab militia member told him they had been given orders to "just clear," his account continued. He asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
Other aid workers said that women and children in SPLA-controlled areas leave their homes at night to sleep in the mountains to avoid any assault launched at night.
They said the Nuba flooding in from Kadugli and other towns wear expressions of horror and exhaustion, and many show signs of malnutrition after days of walking with little or no food.
Heavy bombardment by Sudanese military aircraft has targeted both SPLA and civilian areas in towns and the mountains, and helicopter gunships have chased fleeing Nuba, according to the aid workers' accounts.
The humanitarian situation could soon worsen, as the Sudanese government appears to be blocking aid as a war tactic, refusing to allow aid flights into the Kadugli airport and bombing a key aid airstrip in the SPLA-stronghold of Kauda on Tuesday.
Over 60,000 have fled already from the conflict, most from Kadugli itself, according to the U.N., which reported in a public humanitarian statement on Tuesday that "a growing sense of panic" is gripping the civilians trapped. Half of those are believed to be children, according to Save the Children.
An estimated 8,500 Sudanese have gathered outside the U.N. peacekeeping base on the outskirts of Kadugli, seeking protection and aid. Of those, nearly 2,700 have sought medical treatment for diarrhea and over 1,600 for acute respiratory infections, the World Health Organization reported Wednesday.
Some 30,000 Nuba have fled into the SPLA-controlled mountains for safety, according to a ground assessment by aid organizations there earlier this week.
The Nuba, who are religiously diverse, were similarly targeted by the Sudanese government in the early 1990s, when hundreds of thousands are thought to have died.
(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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