South Sudan militias, tribes clash

Juba - More than a month after southern Sudan's army attacked an ethnic Shilluk militia at a village called Duur, humanitarian organisations and the United Nations still haven't been allowed into the area.

The attack, on March 6, against Johnson Oliny's militia - along with those he had recruited while waiting to be absorbed into the southern army - left 62 dead. As many as 55 of those killed were civilians, according to a senior United Nations official not authorised to speak on the record.

Southern soldiers fired at civilians as the non-combatants tried to flee across the river, then returned the next day for a mop-up operation, looting homes and livestock and firing indiscriminately into houses, according to eyewitness accounts collected by Human Rights Watch researcher Jehanne Henry.

That account, in turn, has been disputed by southern army spokesperson Phillip Aguer.

The incident is indicative of the troubles that face the autonomous region of Southern Sudan, which is seeking to transition to an independent nation this summer after voters backed independence in a January referendum.

Growing violent clashes with rogue military leaders and clashes between rival communities are threatening to spoil the euphoria over finally splitting from the Arab-dominated north, with which the Christian and Animist south fought two long civil wars.

One of the main problems is a high degree of confusion about which militias are honest in their intent to join the new South Sudan. Another is tamping down ongoing fighting between them.

After 22 years of civil war with the Arab-dominated north, southerners, who identify themselves as a part of black Africa, were nearly unanimous in their desire for separation.

Bloody year

But the long-awaited independence will come in the middle of a very bloody year in the south.

According to the United Nations, at least 800 people have already died in armed clashes this year in the south. The total killed for all of 2010 was 980 people.

Almost half of the 151 armed clashes were inter-tribal disputes over water and land. Every year, when the dry season nears its April conclusion, these conflicts spike.

However, at least half of the deaths in 2011 were caused by fighting among security forces and other armed groups, indicating that the southern unity forged before the referendum has quickly crumbled.

According to the UN, there are seven confirmed militias operating in the south. In Malakal, Oliny's militia started its fight because of encroachment on Shilluk land by the Dinka, the south's largest tribe.

"Of course some of the Dinka moved into Shilluk land. This is a federal government, any citizen can move into any state," Both told dpa.

But the March 6 incident showed that tensions are quickly ratcheting up, and often leaving unclear who is fighting whom, and for what reasons.

On March 12, Oliny's forces regrouped and attacked Malakal, the state capital of oil-rich Upper Nile state, which would belong to the new South Sudan.

Destabilisation

The ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the south sees the attack as part of a much bigger plan of destabilisation. It accuses Oliny's militia of receiving support for the northern ruling party, the National Congress Party.

"If the NCP can take Upper Nile, they will be able to launch operations into the rest of South Sudan," Peter Lam Both, the information minister in Upper Nile state, told the German Press Agency dpa.

The governor's response to Oliny's attack on Malakal was to call in former members of the northern army waiting near Malakal to be absorbed into the southern army. They conducted house-to-house searches for guns and in the process committed some of the worst rights violations, noted the UN source.

"Based on the reports we are hearing from the residents of Malakal, the authorities appear to have targeted members of the Shilluk community, particularly youth suspected of being militia members, in the aftermath of the attack on the town," Jehanne Henry, a Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch, told dpa.

Meanwhile, the southern government accused Lam Akol, head of a southern Sudanese breakaway party, SPLM-DC), of engineering the conflict from Khartoum to destabilize the south before independence.

Akol denies these charges, saying the government has sent in the army to crack down on dissent among the Shilluk.

Recent reports of an alliance among militias in the south under George Athor, a former deputy chief of staff in the southern army and the most powerful militia leader, have included Oliny and his fighters. This calls into question the local, tribal nature of Oliny's rebellion.

The Shilluk consider Khorfulous their land and were not happy when Athor moved there with his soldiers in 2006.

"Actually, to be accurate, the first person to attack the Shilluk land was Athor, so they should be attacking Athor," he told dpa.

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