Khartoum Attacks Catholic Bishop's Plane in Nuba Mountains

KAUDA, Sudan
April 18, 2001 (PRNewswire)

Sudanese air force bombers attacked an airstrip in the remote Nuba Mountains Monday, narrowly missing a plane carrying Bishop Macram Max Gassis of El Obeid diocese in central Sudan. The bishop, a long-time champion of Sudan's marginalized peoples, was making his Easter pastoral visit to rural parishes here on the frontlines of Sudan's 18-year-old civil war.

The bishop and his entourage escaped unhurt, but, according to the latest reports, one Nuba militiaman was killed and two civilians seriously injured in the mid-morning attack on the air field by a Russian-made Antonov bomber, Khartoum's instrument of choice in its escalating bombing campaign against civilian targets in rebel-held, or liberated areas of southern and central Sudan.

The incident took place at about 9 a.m. on April 16 (Easter Monday) as the Church leader and his entourage boarded their Buffalo cargo plane, after having celebrated Holy Week services with Nuba congregations in the area. The group was on its way to northern Bahr al-Ghazal to celebrate Easter with Catholics there. Without warning, six barrel bombs, or, anti-personnel weapons, were dropped with a string of thuds just beyond the end of the dirt landing strip, detonating not more than 500 feet from the plane.

Nuba porters, diocesan personnel, well wishers and soldiers attached to the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) who were guarding the air field scattered for safety. Another relief flight posted to the region, under a Khartoum-ordered relief embargo for a decade, was on final approach, and had to take diversionary action to avoid the besieged field.

Before the bomber could turn for another sortie, the bishop's plane took off for Bahr al-Ghazal where it landed safely later that morning.

This was the second aerial attack in as many days in the Nuba Mountains. Bombers had been seen hovering over the area ever since the bishop's arrival earlier in the week. Sunday, April 15, Easter Sunday, Antonovs struck a site near Lumun, with no casualties reported. Late reports indicate that bombers continued their assault today with a series of random bombings around the Kauda area.

The Easter Monday bombing at the Kauda airstrip marks the most serious attack yet on the Church leader and veteran human rights spokesman. In 1998, Khartoum- sponsored bombing raids marred Gassis-led Christmas festivities in the Nuba Mountains. Last year Antonovs pelted Kauda with barrel bombs on December 23, site of Monday's incident, forcing the bishop to delay his plans to visit the region for Christmas.

Gassis may not have been the only target of Monday's bombing. Among the local dignitaries seeing the bishop off were the new SPLA Governor of Southern Kordofan, Abdel Aziz el-Hillu, whose organizational skills are already having an effect on the region's morale and the cohesion of its military forces. But there is little doubt that Gassis and his pioneering efforts to establish and maintain civic and religious institutions - everything from medical clinics, schools and churches to water sanitation - even in the midst of war, are a major thorn in the side of a regime bent on depopulating resource-rich areas like the Nuba Mountains and weakening, if not destroying the influence of non- Islamic institutions in Sudanese life.