Government and rebels intensify fighting in the south

June 19, 2001 (IPS)

Fighting between the Sudanese army and rebels seeking self-determination for the southern part of the country has intensified despite mounting international pressure on both sides to declare a cease-fire.

Spokesmen for both the government and SPLA here in the neighboring Kenyan capital confirmed this week that heavy fighting has been going on in the Bahr El Ghazal and Nuba Mountains region. Each side claims it has captured key positions on several fronts.

In the latest statement, the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) rebels say they have captured nearly all key governments areas in Bahr El Ghazal, the largest province in southern Sudan, except two, and have already surrounded Wau, the government headquarters in the province.

The rebel group also says it controls major chunks of the Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile, but the Islamic regime in Khartoum maintains that it has recaptured most of the garrison areas from rebel hands.

This is the first time fighting is taking place in southern Sudan during the rainy season since the rebels, under Col. John Garang, launched their war in 1983 against the imposition of Islamic Sharia law throughout the country, including the south.

The SPLA says this is a new strategy after it was "provoked" by the dry season offensive, including aerial bombardments of civilian targets by the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime since last October.

"This is good for us because we have an advantage over the government's mechanized strategies," SPLA spokesperson in Nairobi, Samson Kwaje, told IPS this week.

It is also the first major battle SPLA has put up in the vulnerable Bahr El Ghazal since 1997, when a devastating famine hit the province, killing thousands of people.

The famine prompted the international community to negotiate a partial cease-fire to facilitate humanitarian intervention in the region. Aid agencies operating in the region say the humanitarian situation in the region is still delicate.

SPLA says it is expecting a maximum of 35,000 internally displaced people from the current fighting in western Bahr El Ghazal, but is optimistic that the current rains will improve the humanitarian situation in the region.

In its latest attack, SPLA claims it captured Kalandi garrison in Deliny county of the Nuba mountains, killing nine soldiers and capturing others including the garrison commander.

SPLA also is targeting oil companies as part of the war, but says it has no intention of attacking their civilian employees. In one such attack, the rebels said they last week destroyed an "enemy" convoy that was escorting equipment for one of the several oil companies "looting the southern Sudan oil" in the western Upper Nile area. The SPLA claimed to have killed 244 government soldiers in the attack.

"We are making a different move. They (the oil companies) are insensitive to the war situation, and are making quick bucks out of the blood of Sudanese people," Kwaje told IPS this week.

Khartoum has however accused the rebel group of taking advantage of its willingness to negotiate a cease-fire to stage a new war in Bahr El Ghazal province.

"This is a normal thing that happens. Whenever there is a partial cease-fire, SPLA takes advantage and launches military offensive," Sudan's foreign minister Chuol Deng Alak told journalists here recently.

Alak insists that oil exploration, which he says only contributes about 5 percent to the national income, is not an issue in the war, but a wealth sharing one. He also denied reports of displacement and depopulation of hundreds of southern Sudanese people to clear the way for oil companies.

"Oil exploration is not an issue of the war. It has been raised to be an issue. This is just pressure being put on the companies to deprive Sudan of exploiting its natural resources," he said.

The Sudan conflict is Africa's longest running civil war, in which up to two million people have been killed. Recent diplomatic efforts by regional leaders, under the Inter- governmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGAD), which groups seven countries -- Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda -- failed to bring a solution to the conflict.

Late last month, leaders from IGAD countries met in Nairobi, under the auspices of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, to deliberate on modalities for a comprehensive cease-fire, but failed to entice the parties to agree on the key political conditions for ending the war.

Sudanese President Gen. Omar Al Bashir refused to meet Garang at the Nairobi talks, and later said in Khartoum that the rebel leader had also snubbed him at three other such occasions.

SPLA has tied a comprehensive cease-fire to a political solution listed in the IGAD Declaration of Principle, which includes the separation of religion and state, and a referendum in which southern Sudanese people will decide whether to remain in Sudan or secede.

The next IGAD talks are scheduled for August this year. "I think each side is now fighting to gain as much ground as possible as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table," a diplomatic source told IPS here.

Besides IGAD, pressure for a cease-fire is also mounting from the European Union which has expressed concern over failure by IGAD to reach a solution to the conflict, and the United States, which has just completed a review of its foreign policy on Sudan.