Twenty soldiers died in clashes between south Sudan’s army and a rebel militia in oil-rich Unity state as the UN warned on Wednesday that military tensions and political disputes pose a new threat to Africa’s biggest nation.
After the latest bloodshed in the region poised for independence, state authorities announced the expulsion of all northern Sudanese personnel working in Unity’s oil-producing areas, from which much of Sudan’s crude is pumped.
They blamed the north’s ruling National Congress Party for the deteriorating security situation.
The rebels “attacked the area of Boang, where a company of 100 was based. There was fighting and the post was temporarily overrun, with 20 SPLA killed according to initial assessments,” the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s spokesman Philip Aguer said.
The attack in Mayom County on Tuesday was carried out by men loyal to southern militia chief Peter Gadet and Arab Misseriya tribesmen, Aguer said. He said reinforcements were sent to chase the rebels, of whom 62 were killed.
The rebel South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) said it had killed “dozens of SPLA”, as well as destroying four of its trucks and seizing “several” rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars and heavy machine-guns.
But it dismissed as “pure nonsense” claims that the group had itself suffered heavy losses.
“Four of our men were wounded, that was all,” insisted rebel spokesman Bol Gatkouth, while also rejecting allegations that the Misseriya had joined the rebels.
Gatkouth accused the governor of Unity state, Taban Deng Gai, of human rights abuses, including the recruitment of child soldiers and the theft of cattle and women from their community because Gadet, who was backed by the north before joining the SPLA, had turned against the Juba government.
After Tuesday’s fighting, Unity state authorities ordered all northern Sudanese working in the oil fields to evacuate the area, saying they had “ample evidence” that the militia were being supported by Khartoum.
They were ordered out “until further notice”, state information minister Gideon Gatpan Thoar said, adding that authorities would provide security for companies, foreigners and local employees.
The UN said on Wednesday the tangle of mounting military tensions and political disputes were posing a new threat as Sudan heads toward division in less than three months.
“Tensions in the south have risen, particularly conflicts between the SPLA and insurgents and militia” in the south’s Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity states, Atul Khare, a UN assistant secretary general told the Security Council.
“The government of southern Sudan will need to take concrete measures to address ethnic tensions, mismanagement, political and social marginalization, economic development and governance,” he added.
Khare warned that unless quick action is taken the tensions “can quickly undermine progress and threaten to pull the parties back into conflict.” He raised doubts that negotiations will be concluded by July 9.
The International Monetary Fund meanwhile said South Sudan was seeking membership in the Washington-based lender.
The IMF said the application would be reviewed “in due course,” noting that Sudan’s status as a member of the 187-nation IMF would remain unchanged.