For Immediate Release

April 3, 2000 by Gabriel Meyer
Nairobi, Kenya

Officials of the diocese of El Obeid, Sudan, based in Nairobi, Kenya, confirm news reports that forces loyal to the National Islamic Front government in Khartoum have launched a massive four-pronged military offensive aimed at strategic sites in Heiban county and other "liberated" zones in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan. This front line area of Sudan's 17-year-old civil war is served by the Diocese of El Obeid under the leadership of veteran human rights champion Bishop Macram Max Gassis.

Fears are rising, said Ferdinand von Habsburg, Bishop Gassis's director of relief operations, in a telephone interview April 2 from Nairobi, that Khartoum forces, led by Sudanese president Omar el-Bashir, "may be mounting its most significant attempt yet to dislodge the Nuba" from their ancestral land. For weeks now, government troops, newly equipped by Khartoum's oil revenues, have been massing in Kadugli, a government-controlled town in the region, in preparation for what many fear may be an all-out genocidal assault on the indigenous Nuba people, who have long opposed the government's forced assimilation and Islamist policies.

Diocesan officials with contacts in the field reported late last night that government troops have been spotted in the "bush" moving towards Kauda, a regional center where Holy Cross Catholic School, a primary school established by Bishop Gassis, was bombed by Sudanese air force planes in February, killing 21, including 19 children. According to the bishop's spokespersons, the offensive, believed to comprise at least 5,000 troops, was launched from government garrisons at Heiban, Mendi and Buram last week, effectively sealing off the area. According to Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) sources, however, there has been no fighting to date reported in the immediate vicinity of Kauda itself.

The situation is deeply worrying, say diocesan officials. In the past twenty four hours there has been no word from the bishop's pastoral staff in Kauda, although efforts to contact them continue.

A UN Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) report, dated March 31, from Abidjian, confirms the troop movements in the Nuba Mountains, adding that the anti-Nuba offensive included operations in the western Jebels and Dalami as well as Heiban county, where Kauda is located. IRIN also quotes an SPLA source that 8,000 Nuba have been displaced in Buram alone as a result of the campaign, with widespread looting and destruction of agriculture.

Diocesan officials believe that the aim of the current campaign in Heiban county is not only to occupy the landing strips that the Nuba in "liberated" areas use to receive relief supplies and communicate with the outside world, but to move in "heavy guns" to depopulate the region. Such "scorched earth" tactics create humanitarian nightmares in which tens of thousands of civilians die of hunger and exposure. The mass displacement of nearly 10,000 Nuba in Buram by government troops last week at the start of the campaign only confirms Khartoum's grim intentions.

A full-scale attack on Kauda and, possibly, an even wider "sweep" of Heiban county may occur, officials predict, within the next two weeks. The outcome, in military terms, will depend on the effectiveness of vastly outgunned local Nuba defense forces under the command of the SPLA.

The current Kauda offensive is, of course, only part of a much larger decade-old campaign on Khartoum's part, not only to crush the resistance of 1.5 million Nuba to the regime's political goals, but, diocesan sources say, to disperse, impoverish and destroy the Nuba people themselves.

"They want to clear the Nuba Mountains once and for all," Bishop Gassis said in an interview last week on the Nubas' growing peril. "All this because of the oil."