Two rebel groups clashed with Southern Sudan's military ahead of the region's independence referendum, resulting in at least nine deaths, and a top security chief said Saturday he suspected the groups were trying to depress voter turnout.
Southern Sudan begins voting in a weeklong independence referendum Sunday that is likely to see Africa's largest country split in two. In order for the referendum to pass, a simple majority must vote for independence and 60 percent of the 3.9 million registered voters must cast ballots.
The attacks against the Southern Peoples' Liberation Army, or SPLA, happened late Friday and Saturday.
"Why is it happening now? The intention or the motive behind must be undermining the referendum," said Gen.Acuil Tito Madut, the inspector general of the south's police. "Once these fights break out in these states that will mean some people will not vote and once people don't vote that means the required percentage is not achieved."
Southern army spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said forces loyal to rebel leader Gatluak Gai attacked SPLA forces overnight Friday and into Saturday in Unity State, an oil-rich area bordering northern Sudan. Aguer said six rebels died in the exchanges.
Jonglei state, meanwhile, saw deadly clashes between men commanded by militia leader David Yauyau and the southern military, said Madut. One civilian was among those killed, Madut said.
Madut said 32 rebels from Gai's group were captured by the southern military and were being brought to Juba, the southern capital, to be interrogated about who is behind the group. The men were captured with 30 AK-47 assault rifles, one machine gun and one rocket-propelled grenade, he said.
Southern Sudan suffered through decades of internal strife while it was at war with the north. It has worked in recent weeks to strike peace deals with armed southern dissidents, but Gai's and Yauyau's rebels have not yet reconciled.
Starting Sunday, southern Sudanese will cast simple, illustrated ballots at polling stations under thatched roof shelters in the remote and impoverished countryside and in Juba, a city of simple concrete houses and mud huts that got its first paved roads only in recent years.
If it passes, the referendum will split Africa's biggest country between the mostly Arab and Muslim north, and the mostly black and Christian or animist south.
Southern Sudan would then be on track to become the world's newest country in July. Outstanding issues like sharing oil wealth, water rights and demarcating the border still have to be agreed to.
Aid groups also fear that southerners living in the north and northerners living in the south will face harassment and abuse.
The US has made the referendum a foreign policy priority and has offered to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror if Khartoum doesn't hinder the vote.
US Senator John Kerry met with Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir on Saturday. Actor George Clooney, a Sudan activist, and former President Jimmy Carter are also in the country.
Sudan's 1983-2005 civil war killed an estimated 2 million people and left many others missing one or more limbs.
Juba, the southern capital, is full of excitement about Sunday's vote.
"What we are doing is something that we have not done in our lifetime. This is something that has never happened," said Justice Chan Reec Madut, the top southern official in the referendum commission. "Nobody every bothered to ask the people of Southern Sudan as to what their destiny should be."