JUBA/KHARTOUM, Sudan (Reuters) - Sudan’s ruling party said on Thursday that the southern army had killed nine people, including at least five of its officials, stoking tensions during voting in the first open elections in 24 years.
Oil-producing Sudan entered the last of a five days of presidential and legislative polls that mark a key test of stability for Africa’s largest country, emerging from decades of civil war and preparing for a 2011 southern referendum on independence. Voting has been largely peaceful, despite logistical problems and reported harassment of independent and opposition candidates.
Agnes Lokudu, head of the northern-dominated National Congress Party (NCP) in semi-autonomous south Sudan said the region’s separate army had targeted and murdered at least five of its party officials and four other people earlier this week.
South Sudan’s army said it was an individual crime of passion by one of their soldiers who had found the local NCP chief in bed with his wife.
“At night some (southern army) soldiers came to the home of the president of the National Congress Party in Raja, and killed him and eight other people, Lokudu said.
Raja county is in Western Bahr al-Ghazal state in a remote part of south Sudan. The attack was earlier this week.
On Thursday southern Sudanese observers said security forces had removed 19 monitors from polling stations, assaulting one.
Analysts said the violence was a worrying sign of rising tensions as the polls enter the crucial stage of counting, which begins on Friday. Results are due by April 20.
“The coming days are really when things are going to potentially get heated,” said Maggie Fick, an analyst from the U.S.-based Enough project.
“Maybe these are isolated incidents but the last thing we need is out of control security personnel and that could easily happen in the coming stages.”
The ex-southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) head Salva Kiir, is likely to retain his title of south Sudan president, vital ahead of a January 2011 southern vote on independence which many expect to result in secession.
A wave of boycotts by political parties in much of the north left little doubt the NCP’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir would win the national presidential elections. Facing an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for war crimes in Darfur, he hopes a victory would legitimize his rule.
Darfur’s U.N.-African Union peacekeepers (UNAMID) confirmed that four of its South African police component were abducted in the western region wracked by a seven-year uprising.
On Thursday a group purporting to be the kidnappers of the two men and two women told Reuters they wanted a ransom of around $450,000 but gave no further details.
But in both north and south Sudan, the two dominant parties have been rattled by competition from independent or opposition candidates in some of the simultaneous elections for state and national parliaments and 24 state governors.
Many opposition and independent candidates have complained of harassment by authorities in both the south and north.
“There has been intimidation against supporters who are being told if they support me they will be arrested, that after the general elections are over they will kill supporters of the independent candidates,” said Adil Senderi, an independent candidate for the largely separate southern Sudan parliament.
Senderi was just one of many independent candidates, opposition groups and Sudanese election monitors decrying what they said was an attempt to alter the outcome of the vote by ruling powers in both the north and south.
The African Center for Justice and Peace Studies said “systemic mechanisms to confuse the electorate and hinder engagement, such as the switching of symbols and manipulation of the registration list, are beginning to emerge.”
In Khartoum, two members of youth activism group Girifna said they were beaten by NCP officials on Wednesday.
“They were beating us and we were begging the police around the voting station for help — but they did not intervene,” Nagla Sid Ahmed told Reuters.
International observers from the Carter Center and the European Union cannot comment until after the elections, But former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has made largely positive comments about the voting process.