KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Hundreds of people may have been killed in the heaviest fighting between northern Sudanese forces and their former southern rebel foes since they signed a peace deal last year, a top southern officer said on Thursday.
In Nigeria’s capital Abuja, the African Union decided to extend for six months the mandate of its peacekeeping force in Sudan’s western Darfur region, where a separate conflict has killed an estimated 200,000 people since early 2003.
In the southern town of Malakal, terrified civilians reported looting and dead bodies in the streets after three days of clashes, and U.N. officials in New York said 240 civilian personnel had been temporarily evacuated from the town.
“More than hundreds have been lost. The Sudan army sustained very heavy casualties and civilians were caught in the crossfire,” Elias Waya Nyipuocs, a senior officer in the former southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, told Reuters.
Nyipuocs said militias belonging to the northern Sudanese Armed Forces attacked the SPLA and the local commissioner of Malakal. The militiamen then took refuge in the SAF barracks near the airport and full combat began.
“We were forced to overrun the barracks and the SAF fought side by side with the militia against the SPLA,” he said.
SAF tanks then counter-attacked and also shelled the town, inflicting many civilian casualties, Nyipuocs said.
A United Nations statement said fighting had subsided early on Thursday, but tension between armed groups in the town remained high and there was sporadic gunfire.
It said U.N. staff had begun delivering medical aid to 300 to 400 civilians wounded during the fighting.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the clashes “a serious violation” of the January 2005 agreement which ended Africa’s longest civil war in south Sudan.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the United States was “very concerned about reports of fighting” and said the U.N. role in quelling the violence in Malakal underscored why an expanded U.N. force was needed in Darfur.
“I have lost two relatives and my neighbor lost her son,” one resident told Reuters, declining to be named. He said dead bodies could be seen in the streets.
“People are desperate as the water was cut off and despite the gunfire they are still trying to go to the river to get water,” he added.
Around 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers are monitoring the 2005 deal, which created separate north and south Sudan armies with joint units in major towns and an autonomous southern government.
It also shared power and wealth between the north and south, but implementation has been slow on key issues such as the demarcation of borders and ownership of the oil fields.
Malakal is the capital of the Upper Nile region, potentially one of the most oil-rich regions in Sudan, which produces at least 330,000 barrels per day of crude.
Sudan said on Thursday it was considering joining the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Analysts said this was likely to give the country leverage in its confrontation with the United Nations over its refusal to let in U.N. peacekeepers to help halt the Darfur conflict.
A delegate to Thursday’s talks in Abuja said the commander of the AU force would be appointed by the AU in consultation with the United Nations and the Sudanese government.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said he would accept U.N. “political, financial, logistics and technical” support for an African peace force in Darfur.
The U.N. Security Council and Secretary-General Kofi Annan have said as many as 22,000 may be needed, compared to the 7,000 AU soldiers now there. The AU peace and security council said force size should be determined by the AU and the United Nations based on the needs on the ground.
“The numbers should be estimated by the commanders on the ground. We are not setting numbers,” Bashir added.
But U.N. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bashir wrote to Annan earlier on Thursday to say that Khartoum required a voice in the decision-making.
Diplomatic sources said Bashir also told Annan he wanted an African commander, which the U.N. would approve, and agreed to a civilian head of mission who would report to both the United Nations and the African Union.
Experts estimate that 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million uprooted in nearly four years by the violence, which the U.S. government has labeled genocide.
Khartoum says only 9,000 have died and denies genocide.
Additional reporting by Alaa Shahine in Khartoum, Laura MacInnis in Geneva, Tom Ashby in Abuja, Paul Eckert in Washington and Irwin Arieff at the United Nations