An intense flare-up of tribal clashes in southern Sudan over the last three months has killed about 900 people and could threaten upcoming elections crucial to preserving the 2005 peace deal that ended two decades of civil war with the north, aid workers and U.N. officials said.
If violence keeps up at the rate of the last few months, the fighting over cattle and territory is on pace to claim more lives this year than Sudan's separate ongoing conflict in the western region of Darfur.
The 2005 peace agreement created a semi-autonomous south, established a unity government in the Sudanese capital Khartoum with representatives from the north and south and provided for sharing oil wealth. The fight over oil resources was a major trigger in the civil war and continues to threaten the peace between the former rivals.
National presidential and parliament elections are scheduled for February next year — the first national elections to include all of South Sudan in four decades. That vote and a 2011 referendum in the south on whether to secede from the north are viewed as crucial to keeping the peace. Both ballots are integral parts of the phased peace deal, and will set new parameters for powersharing.
The elections will be the first test at the ballots for the southern partner, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement.
Concern about security
But the renewed violence has raised concerns about the ability of the southern government — heavily dependent on falling oil revenues — to provide security in the largely underdeveloped south. Southern officials say this widespread violence could benefit their rivals in the election, who are campaigning to prove the ineffectiveness of the current government.
Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan and vice president in the national unity government in Khartoum, said the tribal fighting was "engineered" to destabilize the south and prove the ineffectiveness of the southern government.
He called for a conference with traditional leaders from all the southern tribes, which started Monday, and urged them to rein in "enemies from within our ranks and without."
"There are people out there, including our own, who are crazy enough to say ... that we are not capable of governing ourselves ... cannot provide (our) own people with security," he said at the conference.
Tribal fighting is common in south Sudan. But the recent attacks are more deadly and partly fueled by the planned February 2010 elections, experts said.
U.N. resident coordinator in the south, David Gressely, said that if the tribal tensions are not contained quickly, "it will be very difficult to carry out activities related to the elections."
The violence broke out in three counties in southern Sudan since March, apparently over cattle rustling. About 900 have been killed, mainly women and children, aid workers and U.N. officials said. Another 20,000 have been displaced, they said.
In contrast, peacekeepers say 2,000 people were killed in the last 15 months in Darfur, where black African rebels have been fighting against the northern government's discrimination since 2003.
The recurrent attacks on civilians and villages in the south are "starting to look like Darfur ... as if the Darfur bug has moved to the south," Khaled Saad, a columnist with the northern independent al-Sahafa newspaper, told the Associated Press.
In one of the worst incidents, gunmen from the Lou-Nuer tribe attacked a village of the Murle tribe in early March, killing 400, U.N. and aid workers said. In mid-April Murle gunmen retaliated by attacking a Lou-Nuer area, killing 250, local officials said. Medical staff from Doctors Without Borders, or Medicines Sans Frontiers, said they could verify 177 deaths. There are scores of tribes in the south.
County Commissioner Doyak Chol, a Lou-Nuer, said the gunmen surrounded the area from two sides and attacked with machine guns at dawn when most people were still asleep. They burned more than 100 huts, and the residents fled the fighting, many of them drowning in a nearby river. The attackers stayed for four days, and two months later, the displaced are still afraid to return.
Former militia leader accused
Chol accused a former southern militia leader, who worked against the current government during the war, of "having an agenda" and arming the rival tribe.
"The previous cattle raids were confined to targeting cattles, not huts, and children," Chol said.
Since March, the U.N. HAS deployed an additional 120 military and civilian personnel in the region to monitor the tension. Aid workers said they were overwhelmed with the intensity of the attacks and the number of wounded pouring into local clinics. Medical staff had to be flown in to deal with severe wounds from gunshots in the abdomen and legs.
Vanessa Van Schoor, operation coordinator of south Sudan for Doctors Without Borders, said in one area, the number of wounded was four times the usual monthly toll.