Sudan Nuba ceasefire may be a mixed blessing

By Caroline Drees
KHARTOUM, March 23 (Reuters)

A two-month-old ceasefire in Sudan's central Nuba Mountains area is a blessing for those in the affected region, but might be escalating fighting elsewhere in the country's civil war.

Diplomats, oil executives and a government official said that while residents in the Nuba Mountains were overjoyed by the ceasefire, fighting had increased in strategic oil-producing areas since the deal was forged with U.S. assistance in January.

Some said the limited cessation of hostilities may have allowed the government and rebels to redeploy troops -- in violation of the ceasefire agreement -- or simply reallocate financial and other resources to more strategic areas.

Others said it was difficult to draw a direct link between the ceasefire and the heightened fighting elsewhere.

Several sources said recent alliances between the main rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), and other opposition groups had strengthened the rebels and may also have helped escalate warfare.

Rebels have been fighting for greater autonomy for the mostly animist and Christian south from the mostly Islamic, Arab north since 1983. The war has claimed some two million lives.

Mutrif Siddig, the foreign ministry undersecretary who headed Sudan's delegation at the ceasefire talks in Switzerland in January, acknowledged on Saturday that fighting had increased, and said there was a danger that forces could be redeployed if a ceasefire has only limited geographic reach.

"It is true...In the Unity State -- that is where we produce oil in the south -- hostilities are escalated," he said, adding that rebels had stepped up attacks, triggering a government response.

"It is true that (in)...a limited ceasefire, it might make the two parties concentrate on other areas and shift resources and forces to other areas. This is why the government of Sudan is for a comprehensive ceasefire," Siddig said.


One senior European diplomat in Khartoum said that the escalation did not necessarily just mean more armed clashes, but could also involve more displacement of people and military encirclement of strategic areas. "The ceasefire didn't mean less war, just elsewhere," he said.

Another diplomat noted that international monitors who would be able to keep an eye on any troop movements would not be deployed to the Nuba Mountains area until April.

Yet, all sides agree the ceasefire has been warmly welcomed by residents in the Nuba Mountains, and many Sudan watchers say the end of suffering in the region was worth some of the risks.

"Even a limited ceasefire is welcome," said Ibrahim Elnur, a Sudan specialist at the American University in Cairo.

"From the point of view of relieving the misery of the people it is positive. The limited peace may bring about new processes and add momentum to finding a political solution."

Jemera Rone, Sudan researcher for rights group Human Rights Watch, said: "The people in the Nuba Mountains are overjoyed about the ceasefire. They had been very neglected...Whatever the big political picture is, the ceasefire has the support of the people on the ground."