Battle scars strategic southern Sudan town

AFP, Friday 13 Apr 2012

Renewed clashes between Sudan and South Sudan takes place more than 100 Kilometres southwest of Talodi in South Kordofan, raising expectations of a return of a new civil war

Members of the Popular Defense Forces shout after their march during their 22nd anniversary celebrations in Khartoum on Tuesday, December 14, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

The straw-roofed hut stood little chance when rebel forces allegedly backed by South Sudan made an unusually drawn-out offensive against this strategic town in South Kordofan state early this month.

The room was barely large enough for two beds, now charred and resting atop ashes of the collapsed straw roof. Overturned tea cups and broken glass lie at the foot of one bed frame.

"They said there were two old women injured," one severely, Sudan's State Minister of Information, Sana Hamad, said as she escorted journalists round the battle-scarred town on a rare visit to the region near the disputed border with South Sudan on Thursday.

Sudan does not allow independent reporting in South Kordofan and tightly restricts access for journalists, diplomats and aid workers.

Renewed clashes between Sudan and South Sudan this week around the north's main oil centre of Heglig, more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) southwest of Talodi in South Kordofan, have pushed the two countries closest to a return to outright war.

The fighting has also intensified international fears that hundreds of thousands of people could soon go hungry in the area.

But during a five-hour visit to Talodi not a shot was heard, and officials told reporters that people who fled the fighting had begun returning, the town was recovering, and there was no need for an international plan to get food into the area.

Roughly 30,000 people had been affected by the Talodi unrest, they said.

"We have managed this humanitarian crisis... and we will continue in this effort until the situation is settled completely," Alsheikh Khalil, deputy chief of the local humanitarian aid committee, said through a government translator.

Ethnic minority insurgents in the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) have been battling government troops for several months in South Kordofan and nearby Blue Nile state.

The rebels fought alongside former insurgents now ruling in South Sudan, which became independent last July. The South denies Khartoum's claim that it supports the SPLM-N.

Since the war in South Kordofan began last June, the SPLM-N has never been able to seize Talodi but this time they tried for seven days, said state governor Ahmed Haroun.

"When they feel that they... failed they began shelling the town, targeting civilians and other premises," Haroun told the reporters.

In figures impossible to verify, he said 35 civilians were killed and 54 injured.

Talodi appears more like a large village than a town, where a new government building contrasts with the huts of ordinary people.

Many areas appeared undamaged by the fighting, but nobody had yet returned to the burned-out hamlet where the two old women were allegedly wounded.

Almagbul Hajam, the local district commissioner, poked at a pothole-like depression in the dirt road, held up a small piece of shrapnel, and said a shell had landed there.

Nearby, Mustafa Adam Ahmad and his wife said they had returned with their children to live in their damaged home. The corrugated metal roof is mangled, and part of a brick wall has been blown out.

Officials showed off the small local power station, where electrical cables lay strewn on the ground and fuel tanks were burned black after a projectile blasted a 30-centimetre (12-inch) hole in one of them.

In the town market, music played and stalls were open.

"I came back three days ago," Abdulsalam Abdullah Mohammed said through a government translator at the kiosk where he sells everything from custard powder to perfume.

Residents said there was no more fighting, but rebels claimed this week that clashes continued sporadically.

Most of the people crowding the market were military men. Some smoked shisha as others sat for tea.

One young militiaman, a scarf around his neck, had tied a red handkerchief to the end of his Kalashnikov assault rifle. A toothbrush poked from his uniform breast pocket.

Dozens of other troops stood in parade formation elsewhere in the town.

About 100 kilometres west of Talodi, more soldiers lined up at the airport in the provincial capital Kadugli, where several military trucks and three attack helicopters were seen along with a large transport aircraft.

Talodi, about 50 kilometres from the disputed border with South Sudan, sits on a partly-treed plain beneath dry, craggy hills.

Hollywood actor George Clooney last month highlighted the crisis in South Kordofan after a secret visit to the region.

He said he saw hundreds of people fleeing in terror to the hills and into caves of the Nuba Mountains because of the constant noise of planes dropping bombs meant for insurgents but which frequently kill and maim civilians.

"We do our best to avoid bombarding civilians," said Haroun, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan's western region of Darfur several years ago.

Haroun said that ultimately a political solution will be needed in South Kordofan.

"But now we fight to prove to them that by military measures they can achieve nothing," he said.

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