Reports find military buildup at Sudan's north-south border

McClatchy NewspapersJune 13, 2011 

JUBA, Sudan — Offering grave signs that Sudan may slide back into war, the southern Sudanese military is repositioning its forces toward the country's tense north-south border, and it alleges that the north is building up its troops on the other side, according to internal United Nations documents obtained by McClatchy.

The documents appear to provide the strongest indications yet that the planned split of Sudan into two separate nations in July — after a January referendum in which the south voted overwhelmingly for independence — won't go peacefully.

The Arab-led northern government has promised to recognize the new, mostly African southern state. But relations between the sides — which fought a devastating two-decade civil war until a U.S.-brokered 2005 peace deal — have deteriorated badly in recent weeks, with clashes over the disputed Abyei district and a messy conflict on the northern side of the border.

The confidential documents — internal daily reports compiled by the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sudan — also seem to show a northern army poised to move into disputed lands at a time when it knows the south is unlikely to retaliate, for fear of risking its July 9 independence date. The reports describe alleged troop buildups on the northern side of the border and aggressive posturing toward contested boundaries by the better-equipped northern military.

For its part, the southern Sudanese military — which still goes by its rebel moniker, the Sudan People's Liberation Army — denied deploying more units to the border area, but the U.N. documents, which cover the week of June 4 through last Friday, tell a different story.

According to those reports, southern Sudan is rapidly repositioning its forces northward. Over June 7-9, 38 T-55 tanks were seen during the middle of the night heading out of the southeastern portion of the southern region toward its capital, Juba.

"In both these movements, there has not been prior notification to UNMIS" — the United Nations Mission in Sudan — "for compliance with verification as provided for" in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which set the stage for January's partition vote, one of the reports reads.

A separate U.N. report says that "it is believed they (the tanks) are headed to Abyei," a disputed border district.

Southern Sudan army spokesman Philip Aguer confirmed that units from the south's Eastern Equatoria state were heading northward through the capital, but said they were bound for Lakes and Warrap states to provide security in order to contain rampant deadly cattle-raiding. He denied that they were deploying near the border.

Abyei sits at the northern tip of Warrap, a border state.

"SPLA is moving to Lakes and Warrap because of the communal fighting in that area," Aguer said. "These are internal movements only."

The U.N. documents also report a convoy of 12 pickups labeled as police vehicles heading north in Warrap state on June 5 in the direction of Abyei.

Last month, northern forces invaded Abyei, but so far southern Sudan hasn't launched a major counterattack. After July 9, however, some fear that the leaders of the new nation, which will be called South Sudan, may not show the same restraint.

On the other side of the White Nile river — which splits South Sudan in two — the southern army seems to be sending more security to its oil fields.

One U.N. report cited a "large number" of southern troops on June 5 in Malakal, the capital of the border oil-rich Upper Nile state. Three army companies also were seen en route to oil-producing Maban county, on the border. On June 6, an unknown number of reinforcements arrived in Melut county, according to the U.N. documents.

Aguer accused the northern army of planning to grab the oil fields in the Unity and Upper Nile border states but said that the southern army was merely "monitoring" the northern movements, not reinforcing defensive positions.

He also said that some new security might have been sent to the oil fields to replace a joint north-south force that's expiring in July, but he couldn't say for sure whether that's what the past week's movement was about.

On one particularly contested boundary — running between the north's South Darfur state and the south's Western Bahr el Ghazal state — a southern official near the border told the U.N. that the north recently had deployed 50 trucks and 36 Toyota Land Cruisers filled with heavy machine guns and northern troops were recently deployed toward the disputed area.

In Upper Nile, the southern army reported a northern buildup along its border. A reported buildup in neighboring northern Sennar state sent residents there fleeing into Upper Nile.

The northern army spokesman, Al Sawarmi Khaled, called reports that additional troops had been deployed to the southern border of South Darfur "not true."

"We have no plans to enter into any southern province," he said.

At one disputed border point in Upper Nile state, the northern army is reported to have moved in and set up a checkpoint in Kuek South. In another border area, called Magennes, local officials accuse the northern army of conducting nightly raids on southerners.

Aguer accused the northern army of using its forces to create "de facto" borders across the south.

"They are bringing more forces to different places, especially the contested zones, over past two months," he said. "These are areas in the past that had no forces."

He said that northern soldiers and tanks had built up particularly on the border of Western Bahr el Ghazal and South Darfur, as well as the disputed oil-producing area of Heglig.

Aguer also accused the north of sending more troops toward Blue Nile. That state, though on the northern side, is governed by an opposition politician who sided with the south during the civil war. South Kordofan, a northern border state that also largely sided with the southern rebels, erupted into renewed violence June 5.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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