WORLD may have jumped the gun in reporting no casualties after Sudan forces dropped a bomb on the town of Lui on Sept. 12, but government fighters-regrettably-were on target. The bombing killed 14 people, including four children. It also wiped out livestock.
Bomb attacks and casualties are not news in south Sudan, where rebels have been fighting the National Islamic Front forces for 18 years. But this attack was significant. Sudan's air force used a pair of MiG29s, one of a dozen sophisticated fighter jets the Islamic government recently purchased from Russia. The use of an advanced piece of air weaponry allows Sudan to threaten not only its blighted population but also the region and beyond.
The government followed the attack with a Sept. 27 ban on humanitarian flights to southern Sudan. That left UN and private relief flights grounded. Worse, it left 3 million Sudanese living in an area the size of Texas without their main source of food.
Normally UN World Food Program cargo planes deliver 150 tons of food each week to two key areas of south Sudan. They take off from northern Kenya in constant rotation-particularly since the United States stepped up the program last year in a bid to feed at-risk residents on both sides of the war.
The UN relief program, dubbed Operation Lifeline Sudan, is no friend to private relief efforts. A bureaucracy subject to veto from the government in Khartoum, it regularly discriminates against Christian and other private organizations. It also bypasses needy areas, establishing "no-go" zones at the behest of Khartoum, usually where military advances are underway. Groups like Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse, which has supported a hospital in Lui, bypass the UN with chartered flights of their own.
The flight ban "effectively blocks most emergency assistance to the entirety of southern Sudan and its estimated 5 million people, aggravating humanitarian conditions that already are abysmal," reported the U.S. Committee for Refugees. The monitoring agency said the new restrictions "expose Sudanese officials' continued willingness to use food as a weapon against their own people." (In Zimbabwe, dictator Robert Mugabe uses food as a weapon against political opponents, as famine conditions deepen; see "Feeding a famine," p. 28.)
New aid restrictions in Sudan go beyond shutting down airspace. The authorities also forbid humanitarian vehicles on the ground used by aid workers to deliver supplies and monitor humanitarian needs. The shutdown came without warning and left relief agencies scrambling to evacuate staff members.
Aid workers believe the ban was enacted as a cover to escalate fighting against rebels. Government forces have been "desperate," said UN spokesman Martin Dawes, to regain territory in the south after rebels captured key towns held by the government at Kapoeta and Torit. Since the September capture of Torit, government counterattacks have been against civilian targets, such as the bombing at Lui.
The insertion of MiGs is almost certain to change the Sudan equation. Government forces carried out previous bomb attacks using converted Russian Antonov cargo planes that were cumbersome and unreliable. The new MiG fighters carry advanced radar systems capable of destroying Tomahawk missiles and striking targets beyond the borders of Sudan.