Rebels watch from Nuba Mountains, one of Sudan's five battlefronts

by Michel Sailhan

Nuba Mountains, Sudan
Nov 27 (AFP)

From his perch in the Nuba Mountains, a 22-year-old clutching a Kalashnikov watches over the immense plain of brown sorghum fields below, near where government forces are garrisoned.

Thomas belongs to the Nuba, a traditionally animist community of 500,000 people who took up arms against the Sudanese government in the late 1980s to defend their rights and against raids by neighboring Muslim militias.

The central Nuba region, about 600 kilometers (460 miles) from the capital Khartoum, is one of five fronts in a civil war which has pitted the government against mainly animist and Christian rebels for the last 18 years.

The war, from the northeast to the deep south as well as parts of central and southwestern Sudan, is fueled by a volatile mix of competing religious, tribal and oil interests, diplomatic and humanitarian sources explain.

Sheltering near the rebel-held town of Karkar with local peasants in the natural fortress provided by 1,000 meter (3,300 foot) Nuba Mountains, Thomas belongs to the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

The closest government garrison is in Mendi, 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the south.

Though traditionally from the deep south, the SPLA has won supporters among the Nuba and other communities who feel they are neglected or colonized by the central government, which is applying Islamic or Sharia law.

Led by John Garang, the SPLA has since 1983 been fighting for self-determination for the south in a conflict which has left between one million and 1.5 million people dead, and four million displaced.

"Peace doesn't interest them. It's a military organization," according to Qutbi al-Mahdi, an advisor to Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir.

He said the SPLA, like many rebel groups, is condemned to continue the war because it lives off conflict. "If there is peace, they will lose their power, " Mahdi added.

The Nuba Mountains are a strategic region because they are criss-crossed by an oil pipeline which allows Sudan to export 140,000 barrels per day (bpd), out of a total output of 205,000 bpd.

But diplomats say most of the fighting is along two other fronts: in the southcentral oil-producing region of Unity State and in the southwest.

In Unity State, the SPLA frequently claims military successes, listing as legitimate targets foreign oil companies such as Talisman Energy of Canada, CNPC of China and Petronas of Malaysia.

But most of these attacks are in fact carried out by the forces of Peter Gadet, who hails from the rural Nuer people, who are allied to the SPLA, which recruits mainly from the Dinka, also cattle raisers.

Other Nuer groups like the forces of the former vice president Riek Machar operate "independently."

In the southwestern states of Northern and Western Bahr al-Ghazal as well as Warab, the SPLA has stepped up its offensives, mainly in a bid to capture Wau, which would serve as a launching pad to Unity State.

The fourth front is in Blue Nile State, site of the hydroelectric dam Roseires.

An SPLA battalion, which recruits from the Ingassana people, has launched attacks on the regional capital of Al-Damazin, without seriously threatening it or the barrage, diplomats said.

The fifth front is in northeastern Kassala state where guerrillas from the nomadic Beja people have joined the umbrella National Democratic Alliance, which groups the SPLA and northern opposition groups.

These guerrillas briefly siezed the regional capital Kassala in November 2000, and staged attacks on the pipeline.

Faced with the threat from an unestimated number of rebels, the government fields a regular army of around 100,000 troops, an Islamic paramilitary group known as the Popular Defense Forces and traditional Muslim militias.

Both sides are fighting mainly with ageing Soviet weapons. In Obeid, near the Nuba mountains, the government has deployed three Antonov planes, maintained by Russian technicians, and uses them to bomb rebel areas.