Sudan (February 1997)
by Peter Verney February 1997

In mid-January, a combined force of northern and southern Sudanese rebels opened a 500km eastern front to the civil war and seized two key garrison towns in northern Sudan. The forces advanced on the Roseires hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile at Damazin, which supplies Khartoum with 80 per cent of its electricity. Former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, who escaped from house arrest in Khartoum in December, joined opposition politicians calling for an uprising against the National Islamic Front regime.

President al-Bashir accuses the United Nations and the United States of financing the operation – the latter gave US $20m to neighbouring Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda last November. Speaking of ‘Eritrean and Tigrayan aggressors’ more than rebels, Khartoum is attempting a mass mobilisation of civilian militias to augment its over-stretched and potentially recalcitrant armed forces – while detaining hundreds of opponents.

On 14 January, Gaspar Biro, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights, was expelled from Sudan on the pretext that the government could not guarantee his safety. In Khartoum, rumours abound that the Iraqi government may be prepared to supply chemical weapons to the Sudanese Government. The Sudanese Government has denied opposition claims that Iran has supplied troops, tanks, guns and chemical weapons.

The World Organisation Against Torture (OCMT/SOS-Torture) repeated its grave concern for hundreds of children aged 7-16, “arbitrarily detained in squalid conditions at the al-Huda Camp, in the desert 2.5 hours from Khartoum”. Despite statements by the Sudanese authorities and UNICEF in September 1996 that the camp was to close, it remains open and “mass arrest sweeps” of children in Khartoum continue.

The build-up of Sudanese government troops in Blue Nile province in response to the rebel advance, and the bombing of the area by Sudan’s air force, has pushed thousands of refugees into Ethiopia near Asosa; malnutrition and disease are rife.

Conditions are also worsening in rebel-held parts of the Nuba Mountains, beyond the reach of the UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan because of Khartoum’s objections. Hopes of a cross-border supply operation from Ethiopia into the Ingessana Hills and Nuba Mountains have been dashed.

In the south of the country, Kerubino Kuanyin’s “SPLA-Bahr al-Ghazal”, now aligned with Khartoum, claims to have driven John Garang’s SPLA-Mainstream from northern Bahr al-Ghazal state in December, capturing an airport and seizing food that an aid organisation had “delivered to SPLA-Mainstream”.

NGO staff nearby were temporarily evacuated; Kerubino had only just released several aid agency hostages. Growing insecurity in northern Bahr al-Ghazal and its effect on relief operations will be discussed by UN/NGOs in Nairobi in January. In mid-December 1996, the ‘International Peace Caravan’ visiting New Cush, in SPLA territory, witnessed the bombing of a civilian village by the Sudanese Air Force.

Northern Uganda and Eastern Equatoria reported increased violence from the Lord’s Resistance Army, which is assisted by Khartoum. A build-up of SPLA-Mainstream forces on the Ugandan border may herald a new offensive in the south.

Northern Darfur, in the west of the country, announced a 96,000 tonne shortfall in grain production – more than half its total requirement – after poor rains. The state governor reported that one billion Sudanese pounds (US$687,000) have been allocated to buy grain, and charitable organisations were seeking to assist low-income groups.

Finance minister Abd al-Wahab Osman accused (presumably indigenous) charitable organisations of black marketeering and cancelled their tax and customs exemptions on 22 December 1996.