Civilians bombed in Sudan border state

Civilians bombed in Sudan border state. British army cut, reserves bolstered. Yemeni security forces begin offensive to retake Zinjibar. First Afghan province handed over to local forces. Court orders withdrawal from Cambodian temple. All this and more in today’s security briefing...
Josephine Whitaker
19 July 2011

Two confidential UN reports documenting a campaign of violence and intimidation against the Nuba people of South Kordofan province, published at the end of last month, were leaked to the press over the weekend.

The reports, which give shocking detail of indiscriminate violence waged by the Khartoum government against the black African Nuba people of South Kordofan, intensify doubts about the future of a newly-divided Sudan, with the new state of South Sudan coming into existence just over one week ago. The United Nations Mission in Sudan (Unmis), which authored both reports, estimates that 1.4 million people have been affected by fighting in the province since unrest began at the start of June.

The first report, prepared by Unmis’s human rights department, documents ‘devastating’ daily aerial bombardments of civilians, ‘indiscriminate shelling’ of crowded places, summary executions and the deliberate targeting of dark-skinned people. The second report goes on to accuse the local authorities in South Kordofan of deliberately blocking peacekeeping activities, preventing it from fulfilling ‘the most basic requirements of its mandate.’

The fighting is widely seen as the first step towards President Hassan al-Bashir’s explicit goal of suppressing ethnic and cultural diversity in favour of Arab-Islamic homogeneity, following the South’s decision to secede.

Despite international outrage at the claims made in the Unmis reports, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, on Friday appeared to cast doubt on their content, saying ‘we do not know whether there is any truth to the grave allegations of extra-judicial killings, mass graves and other violations in South Kordofan.’

The openSecurity verdict: Fighting broke out in South Kordofan, a state formally part of north Sudan but containing large populations which sided with the South during the country’s 25-year civil war, in early June. Now a state on the unstable border between the newly separated Sudan’s, the province’s future is being watched closely as a litmus test for the future of both countries. 

It is not yet clear who started the fighting, with both sides accusing each other of aggression. The Unmis reports note that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), a liberation movement of black African Nubans allied to the South but now seeking a northern alliance to overthrow Bashir, refused to accept the results of disputed state elections in May. However, there is apparently no evidence that it began military operations. Instead, the UN reports argue that the fighting was triggered by an ultimatum issued by the government in Khartoum that all Nuba fighters move to South Sudan by 1 June. This ultimatum was widely seen to have effectively ‘disenfranchised them of their citizenship,’ given the promise of independence for the South in July.

Unmis officials have said off the record that they have been rendered ‘deaf and blind’ in the province ever since fighting began. They claim they cannot even estimate how many people have been killed and displaced so far. The SPLM/A estimates that 400,000 have been displaced at 3,000 killed or ‘disappeared’, although this not been independently verified.

Some of the more shocking claims made by the report include the execution of 410 captured SPLM/A sympathisers ordered by Major-General Ahmad Khamis, a northern officer, on 10 June. With independent observers denied access to the area since early June, it has been impossible to verify these claims, but reports of ‘fresh mass graves’ reported last week suggests there may be some truth in them. The Unmis report calls for its allegations to be referred to the International Criminal Court, a body that has already issued an arrest warrant for Bashir on charges of genocide – a warrant that the Sudanese leader has so far openly denied.

Although Khartoum has officially recognised Southern independence – Bashir even attended his new neighbour’s independence ceremony last week – international observers are concerned that his government will not tolerate a stable and prosperous South Sudan. For one thing, analysts have long been predicting that Bashir’s government is unlikely to accept the loss of three quarters of Sudan’s total oil wealth. South Kordofan is the north’s largest remaining oil state – a fact that may explain Khartoum’s eagerness to stamp out internal dissent.

The lack of clarity over the north-south border that has lingered since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought Sudan’s civil war to an end is another factor at play in South Kordofan. In Abyei, another border oil-rich province, a dispute over its status resulted in the deployment of Ethiopian peacekeepers on Friday. The peacekeeping force arrived to begin overseeing the demilitarisation of this contested province after an UN-brokered agreement between Khartoum and Juba governments.

The real challenge facing the future security of the Sudans is whether they will both be able to address the pressing development challenges they face while coexisting peacefully. The South, despite great mineral and agricultural wealth (it boasts 12% of all the arable land in sub-Saharan Africa), has further to go than its northern neighbour. Years of underinvestment in education, health care and infrastructure under northern control have left Juba with a mountain to climb. Both Juba and Khartoum must establish the security of their newly-defined states, whilst ensuring that development gains are shared by all citizens.

British army cut, reserves bolstered

The UK defence secretary, Liam Fox, today announced that 17,000 troops will be cut from the British army, leaving the regular army at its smallest size since the Boer war of 1899-1902, according to analysts.

Additional training for reservists will see the Territorial Army forming around 30% of a 120,000-strong army by 2020. Fox today announced his support for a review of reserve forces which argues that the UK should follow the US, Canada and Australia in making more use of volunteers on the front lines. Meanwhile, the ministry of defence has plans to increase spending on defence equipment by 1% per year in real terms from 2015 to 2020.

Cuts to army numbers, which will be balanced by increases in the numbers and use of reserve forces, are being made ‘in order to achieve a balanced budget,’ according to Fox. The government blames the previous Labour administration for leaving a £38bn hole in the defence budget.

Yemeni security forces begin offensive to retake Zinjibar

State security forces, backed by local tribes, this weekend launched an offensive to retake control of Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province, which has been under the control of anti-government militants since May. 

The government finally sent troops into Zinjibar after weeks of pleading from local authorities. 54,000 civilians have fled the province since it fell into militant hands, and dozens have been killed as the army has struggled to respond to an intensifying challenge from anti-government militants. Local reports indicate that some 35 militants have been killed since the offensive began on Saturday.

The offensive began as Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh continues to recuperate in Saudi Arabia after being slightly wounded in a bomb attack on the presidential palace last month. Yemen has seen close to six months of mass protests demanding Saleh step down. Saleh, who has been in power for over 30 years, has refused to give in to protestors’ demands so far.

Backed by strong allies, including the US and neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Saleh insists that he is all that stands between stability and total chaos in this impoverished nation. His government has played up the risk of an increasing al-Qaeda presence in the region if Saleh steps down.

However, some opposition groups have accused the government of actively failing to address the situation in Abyan province, as a means of underscoring the chaos they believe may ensue in the absence of a strong central government. The offensive in Zinjibar comes as a coalition of anti-government protestors form an alternative national council.

First Afghan province handed over to local forces

Nato yesterday handed control of Bamiyan province to local police, in the first step of a wider handover to local security forces announced by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in March.

Bamiyan, a province in central Afghanistan, is the first of seven provinces to be handed over to local security force control. The success or failure of this handover is a critical test of Nato’s strategy to transition power back to the central government before foreign troops end combat operations in 2014. Bamiyan has been relatively stable and secure in recent years, although it remains very poor, with 50% of population still not getting enough to eat.

There have been a number of worrying security developments in Afghanistan in recent weeks, including an attack on a luxury Kabul hotel that left 22 dead, and the recent shooting of the president’s half-brother in Kandahar province. Despite these concerns, local and international analysts remain upbeat about Bamiyan’s prospects, with the provincial governor arguing that ‘we don’t have much of security issues here, Bamiyan is a secure province.’

The handover ceremony was not announced in advance for fear of reprisal attacks, as Taliban have threatened to attack handover ceremonies.

Court orders withdrawal from Cambodian temple

The United Nation’s highest court today ordered both Thai and Cambodian troops to pull their forces back from a disputed ancient Khmer temple that has been the scene of violence clashes over the last several months.

The ruling of the International Court of Justice in the Hague ordered that ‘both parties immediately withdraw their military personnel currently present in the provisional demilitarized zone and refrain from any military presence within that zone.’

This decision comes after Cambodia in April asked the ICJ for an interpretation of a 1962 ruling on ownership of the lands around the 900-year old Preah Vihear temple. Although Cambodian ownership of the temple itself is not disputed, both sides argue that the surrounding 4.6-square-kilometre area is their territory.

The dispute has been rumbling on for almost forty years, but fresh fighting earlier this year displaced 85,000 civilians in surrounding areas, and left several dozen dead. The ICJ ruling also urged both sides to allow Asean mediators to resolve the dispute

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