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Tim Freccia/Enough Project/AFP/Newscom

War clouds

Conflict in the south and troop movements in the north escalate tensions in Sudan

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

For South Sudanese citizens looking forward to their first Independence Day, rebellion is overshadowing revelry. Nearly six years after the end of a brutal civil war with the oppressive northern government, South Sudan faces another threat to its stability and newfound freedom: rebels from within.

Clashes between southern troops and local rebel groups have killed hundreds since January, threatening to cripple the infant nation before it takes its first steps. The worsening attacks have left some suspicious of northern involvement and wondering if the Khartoum-based government is willing to let the South Sudanese people go.

Nearly 99 percent of South Sudanese citizens voted to break from the northern-based government in Khartoum in a January referendum. The result wasn't surprising: Twenty years of civil war left millions of South Sudanese killed or driven from their country by an Islamic government determined to impose Sharia law on the predominantly Christian south.

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A 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended the war, and the January referendum confirmed South Sudan's secession. The region is set to become an independent nation on July 9.

But tribal conflicts have persisted, and two opposition leaders have led much of the fighting. George Athor-once in the inner circle of South Sudan's government and military-defected last April after losing an election to become governor of the Jonglei state. The disgruntled leader formed a militia that has clashed with southern forces. Two days of fighting in March killed at least 70 people.

Southern officials say Gabriel Tanginya is leading separate militia attacks in the south. Tanginya's background is even more worrisome: The leader-known as "Tang"-has longstanding ties to forces in the north.

South Sudanese officials believe that the conflicts aren't entirely regional: Government leaders accuse Khartoum of arming and inciting the groups in an attempt to destabilize the south. Pagan Amun, a top southern official, accused Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of attempting to overthrow the southern government, and said South Sudan would suspend talks with Khartoum.

Those talks resumed by March 17 and are critical to a successful separation in July. The two regions haven't settled a slate of vexing issues, including how they would cooperate on sharing the country's vast oil wealth. (The south contains most of the oil, but the north controls the pipeline and a key port for exporting it.)

The most volatile issue remains Abyei, an oil-rich region along the north-south border. The two sides haven't agreed on borderlines for Abyei or the terms for a referendum to allow the region's residents to decide which country to embrace.

Northern officials deny involvement with southern rebel groups. And Bashir-wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Sudan's western region of Darfur-said he would abide by the results of the referendum.

But the Satellite Sentinel Project-an independent group set up by Sudan human-rights activists to monitor troop movements in Sudan-reported a troubling development in late March: The group said northern-backed troops were assembling near Abyei. "Satellite imagery confirms the reports of large numbers of northern forces as well as newly fortified encampments," said project director Charlie Clements. "This should be sounding alarms about the human security of all civilians in Abyei."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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