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Amidst ‘Dire’ Humanitarian Crisis, U.S. Urges Ceasefire in South Kordofan

Pam Johnson

WASHINGTON, Jun 22 2011 (IPS) - As the date for South Sudan’s long anticipated Jul. 9 secession inches closer, on-going violence in the Northern state of South Kordofan threatens to destroy the country’s hopes for peace.

United States President Barack Obama said in a White House statement Wednesday that the situation in the central region of the country is “dire, with deeply disturbing reports of attacks based on ethnicity”.

“The United States condemns all acts of violence, in particular the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) aerial bombardment of civilians and harassment and intimidation of United Nations peacekeepers,” Obama said.

Since early this year, the civilians of oil-rich South Sudan have paid heavily for their attempts to break from the Arab-dominated North – most recently by enduring a brutal occupation of the fiercely contested border region of Abyei by President Omar al-Bashir’s notorious military forces.

Though the situation abated slightly Monday following the signing of a peace deal in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – which mandated a withdrawal of the Khartoum-backed SAF and the deployment of 4,000 U.N.-sponsored Ethiopian peacekeeping troops to patrol the region and buffer the North-South boundary – violence has rapidly spread now to the centre of the country, where the largely pro- Southern Nuba people are weathering a ferocious attack.

“Under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), both the Government of Sudan and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) committed to resolve their differences peacefully, and both parties have a responsibility to end the current violence and allow immediate humanitarian access to desperate people who have been driven from their homes and are now cut off from outside help,” Obama said today in Washington.

He commended the peace agreement, but warned that the crisis in Kordofan must also be addressed immediately. “Without [a ceasefire] in Southern Kordofan, the roadmap for better relations with the Government of Sudan cannot be carried forward, which will only deepen Sudan’s isolation in the international community, [and] the people of Southern Kordofan [will not] enjoy the right to have their political grievances addressed.”

However, with barely two weeks left before newly elected President Salva Kiir Mayardit’s government officially takes its seat in the new Southern capital of Juba, reports from the ground in South Kordofan foreshadow a bloody and protracted conflict.

The ‘New York Times’ reported yesterday that the Sudanese Army and its allied militias have gone on a “rampage” to crush rebel fighters in South Kordofan’s Nuba Mountains, “bombing thatched-roofed villages, executing elders, burning churches and pitching the central region… into crisis”.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), aerial bombardments, extra-judicial killings, assassinations of even women and children and destruction of property have caused “tens of thousands to flee”.

Some sources believe the number is higher – the U.N. estimates that refugees from South Kordofan’s capital Kadugli number 40,000, and the World Council of Churches reported that 300,000 civilians are besieged, totally barred from humanitarian assistance.

The Sudanese Army has forbidden all aid workers and threatened to shoot down U.N. helicopters.

Last week, the Sudan Ecumenical Council claimed, “civilians are being hunted down like animals by helicopter gunships.”

“This is going to spread like wildfire,” an American official speaking under condition of anonymity told the ‘New York Times’ yesterday. “Without mediation you’re going to have massive destruction and death in central Sudan and no one seems able to do anything about it.”

Eric Reeves, a Sudan analyst and researcher at Smith College, blasted U.S. special envoy Princeton Lyman’s quiet diplomacy with Khartoum in the face of a “terrifying” crisis, warning that unless the U.S. leveraged its military and diplomatic muscle, the consequences would be disastrous.

“I have read enough accounts of the ethnically-targeted violence – including testimony from U.N. officials and interviews with civilians – to say that what we are seeing in Southern Kordofan is undisputedly ethnic cleansing,” Reeves told IPS.

Some experts in Washington believe that the U.S. has little influence on al-Bashir, who has long relied on the support of oil-purchasing Gulf and Asian powers to back his army’s military excesses.

“I’m not sure the administration has a muscle to flex anymore,” David Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, told IPS. “The only thing it can do other than pontificate more vociferously than it has in the past is to threaten to slow down any aspects of the normalisation of relations.”

“However, given that the overriding issues are moving forward with implementation of the CPA and [securing] Southern Sudan on Jul. 9, there will likely be a reluctance in Washington to do or say anything that threatens those processes,” he added.

Blood and Oil

Home to the historically marginalised Nuba people – who have long endured the brunt of Khartoum’s oppressive Islamist-Arabism, including what some experts have labelled a “genocidal massacre” in the 1990s – South Kordofan will not be won without a fight.

The ethnically, religiously and culturally distinct Nuba people now include over 30,000 Northern fighters, who battled alongside the Southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) during the civil war, and are now fighting tooth and nail against the Northern government’s demand that all pro-Southern forces disarm on the eve of secession.

“When I was in the Nuba Mountains… I spoke to a number of senior military officials and civil society leaders,” Reeves told IPS. “And they made very clear to me that Khartoum has never regarded them as human beings, that they have no exit, and no option but to fight to the death.”

But when measured in terms of oil-revenues, the cost of the Nuba’s autonomy in the North’s only oil- producing state might be too high for Khartoum to bear.

Just last week Sudanese finance minister Ali Mahmoud claimed that “the national budget will lose 36.5 percent of its revenues” as a result of the secession since the South houses three quarters of the country’s crude, which has thus far accounted for over 50 percent of Khartoum’s annual budget.

Add potential lost revenues from South Kordofan’s reserves and the equation bodes very badly for peace.

“Without international pressure, you can expect a continued military campaign by the SAF to eliminate or expel former SPLA units from Southern Kordofan,” E.J. Hogendoorn, the Africa project director of the International Crisis Group, told IPS. “This will be difficult, since they are holed-up in the mountains and continued fighting could trigger a Southern response.”

However, others continue to hold out hope that economic motivators might budge the international community into action in the face of ethnic cleansing.

“Khartoum has already threatened to close down the major pipeline unless the South agrees to pay transit fees that are likely to be extortionate – anywhere from 50 cents to 50 dollars a barrel,” Reeves told IPS. “Currently, there is no incentive for the SPLM not to attack the oil infrastructure in retaliation, and this would be a disaster.”

“What few people realise about Sudanese crude is that it is very dense in paraffin, which congeals very quickly. If the oil flow is stopped, it is enormously difficult to get it started again – and this should surely provoke China to act more aggressively,” Reeves said.

“China-U.S. relations are also worth considering in this matter,” Shinn told IPS. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there haven’t already been discussions with China in an effort to lean a little heavier on Khartoum.”

“Given that China has more economic leverage than the U.S., they might well be willing to speak frankly with the government in Khartoum to ensure that the situation in Southern Kordofan doesn’t totally destroy the possibility of a peaceful transition on Jul. 9,” he added.

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