March 22, 2011 / 1:09 PM / in 7 years

Q+A: Can south Sudan violence derail peace?

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan’s south has erupted in deadly clashes between the army and many militias centered in oil-rich areas, killing hundreds this year and sparking fears of instability ahead of the region’s expected independence in July.

The U.N. Security Council on Monday held a closed-door meeting on the violence and the disputed Abyei region, where clashes have threatened a 2005 north-south peace deal.

Here are some questions and answers on the recent violence.

WHO ARE THE MILITIA?

George Athor, a senior southern army (SPLA) commander who broke away after disputing April 2010 elections, says he is coordinating fighters in the oil-producing states of Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei where he is based. He says the soldiers left the SPLA, disillusioned with its democratic credentials. Other militias are vigilante forces formed to protect local communities in the south’s rural security vacuum, where civilians are heavily armed after decades of civil war. The south’s dominant party, the SPLM, says the fighters are armed by the north.

WHY NOW?

Southerners voted overwhelmingly in a January referendum for secession from the rest of Sudan, but the SPLM says Khartoum wants to destabilize the south ahead of independence to keep it weak and under the thumb of the more developed north. Some 75 percent of Sudan’s 500,000 barrels per day of oil comes from southern wells. Khartoum denies any support for militias. Critics of the SPLM say an amnesty it granted for rebels last year was only to ensure the January secession referendum went smoothly. Some of the militias had gathered in locations designated by the army as a prelude to integrating them into official forces.

“In all these instances of fighting, without exception, the SPLA attacked. You gave someone a designated place and then you attack them -- why would you do that?” said southern opposition politician Lam Akol.

Two diplomatic sources in Khartoum told Reuters the SPLA had decided to rout the armed groups militarily rather than talk.

COULD THE VIOLENCE SPARK FRESH CIVIL WAR?

Khartoum exploited existing ethnic southern tensions, arming proxy militias during the north-south civil war that ended in a 2005 peace deal. While the SPLM says Khartoum has renewed this policy and it has documents to prove it, the north denies this. The violence has hardened positions on talks on the mechanics of secession -- the two sides are far apart on agreeing a joint border, sharing oil, and on the status of the disputed Abyei region where satellite images have shown troops massing from both sides. While neither side can afford a return to all-out war given their dependence on oil revenues, Abyei is still a major bone of contention which could reignite localized conflict.

WILL THE VIOLENCE THREATEN THE NEW STATE?

South Sudan has little infrastructure and a heavily armed population prone to ethnic tensions. The government has failed to extend control to rural areas, leaving security vacuums.

The dense forests are conducive to guerrilla warfare, so the SPLM is unlikely to successfully resolve rebellions militarily.

If it does not adopt an inclusive approach to south-south dialogue the new state could become unstable, discouraging investment and even donor aid, which it will desperately need to develop state institutions.

WHAT ABOUT ABYEI?

Abyei’s disputed status has the potential to derail peace and the U.N. Security Council promised this in Monday’s talks.

Abyei’s referendum on whether to join the north or south is unlikely to happen as the former foes cannot agree on who will vote. The region lies along the north-south border near Sudan’s largest oil fields.

Neither side looks willing to compromise, troops have amassed from both sides and, if emotions rise, logic could go out of the window and spark a wider conflict. The international community wants a solution before the south’s secession takes place in July.

Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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