January 21, 2007 / 2:57 PM / 11 years ago

Darfur focus makes south Sudan secession more likely

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Secession by southern Sudan has grown increasingly likely, in part because conflict in the country's Darfur region has distracted attention from the task of helping the south recover from decades of war.

The international community got a wake-up call as tensions between the north-south peace partners ruined celebrations last week marking the second anniversary last week of the peace deal which ended Africa's longest civil war.

"With everyone concentrating on Darfur, the (north-south deal) seems to be drifting off the international community's radar screen," said Patty Swahn, a regional director for the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee.

"The slow progress in implementing the agreement is extremely worrying; if there isn't active support for the peace process, there is a real risk of renewed fighting," she added in a joint press statement from five international aid agencies.

The north-south deal ended a civil war which claimed 2 million lives and drove more than 4 million people from their homes. It created a semi-autonomous southern authority, a national coalition government, separate north and south armies and enshrined wealth sharing and democratic transformation.

By 2011 the south can choose in a referendum whether or not to secede, a move analysts said was most likely now.

Instead of celebrating peace on January 9, south Sudan president Salva Kiir attacked his northern partners, the National Congress Party (NCP), listing violations of the 2005 deal. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir made a defensive response.

Kiir said the northern army's support of proxy militia in the south was alarming and berated a lack of transparency in Sudan's oil industry and a stalemate on demarcating the north-south border to show where the oil fields lie.

Bashir said Kiir's party, the former rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), was also to blame through delays on its part. He criticised the southern government for failing to set up basic institutions such as customs and immigration.

DARFUR TOPS AGENDA

The southern owner of the Khartoum Monitor newspaper, Alfred Taban, said that Bashir's response showed he was not serious about peace. "The performance of president Bashir shows clearly that he is no longer the President of Sudan: he is the president of north Sudan," Taban wrote in an editorial this week.

"My advice to Salva is to start the formation of a new nation called south Sudan."

Sudan expert Dave Mozersky from the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank said that the northern ruling party was driving southerners into the separatist camp.

"Separation seems increasingly likely given the total lack of effort or investment from the NCP in making unity attractive to southerners," he said.

Mozersky said the international community and the United Nations had forgotten the south, instead focusing entirely on the separate four-year-old Darfur conflict in Sudan's west.

"The U.N. should be more proactive and vocal about violations ... committed by the parties," he said. "But the U.N. has been relatively silent on the matter, focusing instead almost entirely on Darfur."

Rape, pillage and murder has killed an estimated 200,000 and driven around 2.5 million from their homes in four years of violence in Darfur called genocide by Washington. Khartoum denies genocide.

The ICG last year heavily criticised the top U.N. envoy on Sudan, Jan Pronk, who was appointed primarily to monitor north-south implementation. It said he had spent only a fraction of his time in south Sudan or working on southern issues.

"Darfur is terrible and rightly remains at the top of the international agenda. However, Darfur should not come at the expense of (north-south relations) in terms of international engagement and focus," Mozersky said.

The open hostilities between Bashir and Kiir served as a reminder that the north-south deal was very fragile. The aid agencies said the international community must help show southern Sudanese the benefits of peace to encourage conflict resolution in Darfur.

"After more than 20 years of war, people need to feel the 'dividends' of peace in order to firmly break the cycle of conflict," the joint statement said.

"Promoting post-conflict recovery and development is vital to stabilizing the volatile situation across the country."

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