Sudan conflict undermines talks but war unlikely

AFP , Sunday 13 Nov 2011

Ties between Sudan and the newly-independent south are badly strained after violence surged along their tense border and darkened the prospects of talks, but analysts say all-out war is unlikely

Fighting flares: The rebel SPLA are reportedly behind deadly violence at Sudan's southern border. (Photo/ file: AFP)

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir said his country would not sacrifice any more of its people in wars with the north. But he also claimed that Khartoum was looking for a pretext to invade and seize southern oil fields. "We will never allow our sovereignty to be violated by anybody," he warned on Thursday.

Shortly afterwards, southern officials say the northern army carried out two cross-border air strikes, including on a refugee camp, and a deadly ground attack in the country's oil-producing states of Unity and Upper Nile.

Khartoum strongly denied the allegations, insisting that Juba was supplying the southern-aligned SPLM-North rebels that the Sudanese armed forces (SAF) claimes to have defeated in Blue Nile state but continues to battle in South Kordofan.

Analysts warn the ongoing violence in the border area will only make it harder for Juba and Khartoum to resolve key post-secession issues, which include the division of oil revenues, the future of the disputed Abyei region, and border demarcation.

"The fighting is going to complicate the negotiations because the two parties need to sit down and amicably resolve the pending issues," said Fuad Hikmat from the International Crisis Group. "This is not a healthy situation. The African Union is trying to bring the two parties together for talks in Addis Ababa, but ... it's getting ever more difficult," he added.

Hikmat said the discussions on some of those issues, especially Abyei, were "extremely complicated" and required a lot of political will, which was notably absent from the language of senior officials, north and south.

In a speech to mark the Muslim Eid al-Adha festival and the capture of the Blue Nile border town of Kurmuk last Sunday, President Omar al-Bashir accused Juba of a string of betrayals and provocations.
He said if the south wanted to go to war, "our army is there."

Magdi Gazouli, Sudan analyst with the Rift Valley Institute, said "I can see a lot of rhetoric. But there's nothing concrete to support the notion that these people are going to fight any time soon." "Bashir delivered a very triumphant speech in Kurmuk, which contained a warning to the south," he said, arguing that it was mainly for "internal consumption."

"He was not stating the position of his government towards South Sudan. I think he was doing a propaganda stunt for the SAF, saying 'we fought the war, we won it together, we were not defeated.'"
Equally, Kiir's claims about the north trying to capture the southern oil fields were simply "a cry for international support," according to Gazouli.

He believes the attacks in Upper Nile and Unity states were targeting the retreat positions of the SPLM-North in South Kordofan, comrades in arms of the ex-southern rebels who refused to give up their weapons when the south seceded.

Both sides have repeatedly accused each other of -- and denied -- arming rebel groups.

Roger Middleton, Sudan expert at the London-based Chatham House think tank, says the history of conflict in Sudan, and in the region generally, is characterised by governments supporting rebels or opposition groups in neighbouring countries.

"The idea of support across the border for insurgent activity in the north, that kind of thing is much more realistic than ... a full-scale war between the two countries," he told AFP.

The numerous internal problems facing Juba and Khartoum, the severe economic woes dogging the Sudanese government and the cost involved in such a war were the main reasons he gave.
"But I don't think we'll see the end of cross-border skirmishes," he said, adding that he also believed the ongoing clashes would make future negotiations "much harder."

For now, Juba is able to continue exporting its oil, the lifeblood of the south's economy, via Port Sudan. And Khartoum is remunerated in back payments, getting less than what it used to, but more than it is likely to receive under a final oil deal.

Failure to strike such deals, however, points to more serious dangers on the road ahead. "The longer these things are left unresolved, the more likely you are to get into a situation of permanent antagonism, like Ethiopia and Eritrea, or a Kashmir situation," said Chatham House's Middleton.

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