Your NPR news source

S. Sudan Reports Attack, 20 Dead As Voting Continues

SHARE S. Sudan Reports Attack, 20 Dead As Voting Continues

Arab tribesmen accompanied by a Khartoum-backed militia killed 20 policemen in Sudan’s disputed region of Abyei, a southern military spokesman said Monday, raising concerns of violence as the south carries out a weeklong independence referendum.

A tribal leader, though, said police had killed 10 herders in the area. The reported attacks came Sunday, the first day of Southern Sudan’s self-determination vote, which is widely predicted to break Africa’s largest country in two.

Sudan’s Arab, mostly Muslim north has battled the black, largely Christian and animist south over various issues, including ideology, religion and resources. The conflict became Africa’s longest civil war and cost 2 million lives. In 2005, the United States brokered a peace agreement. This week’s referendum, which runs through Saturday, was part of the deal. The balloting is likely to produce an overwhelming vote for independence.

Jubilant voters flooded polling stations for a second day Monday. Turnout was heavy in the southern capital of Juba, with lines running 500 people long Sunday. Peres Juan Ebele had walked for an hour in flip-flops to be among the first at the polls in Kulipapa, a village of about 600 people an hour’s drive outside Juba, Sunday morning. She had a message in English for the government of Northern Sudan: “Bye-bye, bye-bye. All I can say is bye-bye.”

Like many Southern Sudanese, Ebele, who is about 40, despises the leaders in the northern capital of Khartoum. She said soldiers from the north had raided her village since before she was born, abducting children and killing husbands and daughters.

Several hours’ drive away in the market town of Lainya, hundreds pushed to get into a polling station in the midday heat Sunday. Mogga Jackson, a Baptist preacher in the village of Ganji Payam, said he’d vote for independence because the north has ignored the basic needs -- like health care and clean water -- of poor villages like his.

“There are no doctors which can come and help us. Water is not available. We have to go to the stream and get water from the stream,” he said. A free Southern Sudan will be able to use money from its resources, like oil, to build a new, more prosperous nation -- one where southerners can rule themselves and live without fear of the north, he said.

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has said he will let the oil-rich south secede peacefully, calling the balloting a necessary step to avoid war and make Sudan stronger and better. But Abyei, the site of Sunday’s attack, is still a major sticking point, and officials from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to Sudan activist and actor George Clooney have warned that Abyei holds the potential to send the north and south back to conflict.

Abyei, which straddles the north-south divide and holds oil deposits, had been promised its own self-determination vote, but now its future will be decided by north-south negotiations that have so far made little progress.

Differing Accounts Of Attack Sunday

Col. Philip Aguer, the spokesman for Southern Sudan’s army, said the Misseriya -- an Arab tribe that moves its cattle herds through Abyei -- attacked the village of Maker-Adhar on Sunday with anti-tank weapons and artillery. Aguer said he believes the attack was planned.

“They were not with cattle, they were coming for [an] attack,” Aguer said.

Aguer said the Misseriya were accompanied by uniformed militia men known as the Popular Defense Forces, a militia backed by the Sudanese government in Khartoum whose existence was outlawed by the 2005 peace agreement that ended the 1983-2005 north-south civil war.

There was no immediate comment from the Khartoum-based government on the allegations.

Aguer said 20 police serving with Abyei’s joint integrated police unit were killed. Another 30 were wounded. A U.N. official said the southern government has asked for help in evacuating the wounded police. The official was not allowed to be identified because the information hadn’t been made public.

Clashes in disputed regions often produce widely differing accounts of the events. Bashtal Mohammed Salem, a Misseriya leader, told the AP that 10 Misseriya herders were killed Sunday in attacks by police in an area about 10 miles north of Abyei. Maker-Adhar, where Aguer reported the police deaths, is in the same general area.

“They want to keep us out of the area and declare independence unilaterally,” he said. Salem said leaders of the Dinka, a southern tribe, and Misseriya agreed no more attacks would happen.

Trying To ‘Keep Abyei Calm’

Meetings on Wednesday are to include the interior ministers of the south and north to regulate the presence of police in the area. Salem said southern security forces have increased their presence in Abyei, violating an agreement governing the issue.

Abyei also saw violence Friday and Saturday, though officials from the north and south gave conflicting accounts of the casualties and the locations of the fighting.

President Obama on Sunday singled out Abyei in a statement and said attacks there should cease.

Barrie Walkley, the top U.S. official in Juba, said the governor of neighboring Southern Kordofan state in northern Sudan traveled to Abyei on Sunday to meet with the top official in the area. They signed an agreement pledging to address the conflicts between the two sides, Walkley said Monday.

The agreement “represents an important step to try to keep Abyei calm and to make sure that these small clashes don’t escalate,” Walkley said.

The south’s army suspects that the governor of Southern Kordofan state, Ahmed Haroun, is arming militias in the area. Haroun is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for his role in the Darfur conflict in western Sudan.

Aguer, the southern military spokesman, accused Haroun of “doing the same thing he did in Darfur. He’s the master minder of the whole situation.”

The Sudanese president’s regime is accused of unleashing Arab militias known as janjaweed against rebels in the Western Darfur region which have committed atrocities against ethnic African towns and villages. The U.N. says some 300,000 people have died since 2003. The government denies backing the janjaweed and says the death figures are inflated.

Voting For ‘Separation’ Or ‘Unity’

Southerners, who mainly define themselves as African, have long resented their underdevelopment, accusing the northern Arab-dominated government of taking their oil revenues without investing in the south.

Southern Sudan is among the world’s poorest regions. The entire France-sized region has only 30 miles of paved roads. Because only 15 percent of southern Sudan’s 8.7 million people can read, the ballot choices were as simple as could be: a drawing of a single hand marked “separation” and another of clasped hands marked “unity.”

Independence won’t be finalized until July, and many issues are yet to be worked out. They include north-south oil rights, water rights to the White Nile, border demarcation and the status of Abyei.

Most of Sudan’s oil is in the south, while the pipelines to the sea run through the north, tying the two regions together economically. Officials from both Khartoum and the south therefore recognize that should partition happen, the two countries will have to have a close working relationship. With oil reserves dwindling and the economy weighing heavily on the minds of most Sudanese, officials on both sides are tasked with finding ways to reduce debt and find alternative exports.

With reporting from NPR’s Frank Langfitt in Juba, NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Khartoum and material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


The Latest
It’s election day, and hundreds of teens are serving as election judges. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments today in a case that could impact more than one million student people in Illinois with college debt. Local groups are stepping up to provide shelter for asylum seekers arriving in Chicago.