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Standing Guard: A Sudanese soldier awaits the visit of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Juba Sept. 4.

Rumors of war

Sudan | Hostilities between north and south could spell the beginning of the end of peace in Sudan

Issue: "Survivors," Sept. 29, 2007

After 20 years of north-south civil war came a historic peace in Sudan, but at two years old it is in danger. Following provocations from the north this month, including a military stand-off, locals and Sudan analysts believe the two sides will soon go back to fighting.

Khartoum signaled a return to hostilities on Sept. 6 when the north's armed forces in tanks and mounted Toyota trucks seized some 70 troops and generals from the south's Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in South Kordofan. The seizure took place even as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in the vicinity, touring Sudan to promote peace in his first visit at the UN post.

According to southern officials, the SPLA were there to organize tribal militias from Darfur, the western region now at war with Khartoum. Such maneuvers are permitted under the peace deal, which says militias in the country who once fought with Khartoum or the SPLA must now absorb into one or the other side. The Darfur militias, who once sided with the north, are now uniting with the south. That "must have been a shock" to Khartoum, said John Ashworth, a Sudan analyst with the Denis Hurley Peace Institute in South Africa.

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Five days later, southern Sudanese president Salva Kiir spoke before his legislative assembly. He first had to quell mysterious rumors of his death, even rushing to Khartoum to appear on TV. Before lawmakers, he warned that "it is likely that Sudan will reverse again to war."

In 2005, the mostly Muslim and Arabized government in Khartoum signed a peace deal with the African, largely Christian south, ending a conflict that killed 2 million. The peace was welcome for weary southern rebels who had long fought against northerners striking their villages, killing their families and taking them as slaves. Since then, however, southerners have grown frustrated as they see few fruits from the power-sharing agreement.

"When we signed the [peace deal] in 2005, our feeling was that Sudan had entered into a new dawn of peace and hope for our people. Today-and I do not want to mince my words-the feeling is not the same."

A day after Kiir's speech, escalating tensions further, Sudanese security forces raided the Khartoum offices of the south's political arm, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). They destroyed property and, according to some reports, broke down a door and may have smashed a portrait of John Garang. If true, that would only stoke animosity. Garang was the south's beloved war-time leader who died in a helicopter crash in 2005. Though it is unclear why the raids happened, Ashworth told WORLD that Sudan's security forces sometimes act autonomously, without higher approval.

In any case, President Omar al-Bashir, head of Sudan's ruling party, may have thought events ran too far ahead, even if the north's strategy so far has been to stall the peace. "As for talk about return to war, we say war will not return, because we have decided not to fight in south Sudan again," he said Sept. 14 on a trip to Italy.

Words come cheaper than actions, however. The north has delayed implementing some of the north-south peace deal because it stands to lose oil reserves in the south as new borders are drawn. The Khartoum government in the north also has fudged on funding a census due next year, which will number voters for a 2011 referendum over whether the south will secede from the north.

On his Sudan trip, Ban Ki-moon made a point to visit Juba, the south's capital-signaling a realization, perhaps too late, that the world has focused too narrowly on conflict in Sudan's Darfur province, where 400,000 have died and 2.5 million have been displaced. "The international community is obsessed with Darfur," Ashworth said. "While Darfur is a terrible humanitarian [crisis], if peace in the south fails, there certainly won't be peace in Darfur."

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