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Senior UN official warns of deadly dangers facing southern Sudan

11 September 2009 – The people of southern Sudan face serious threats to their security from a brutal Ugandan rebel militia operating in the area as well as a recent flare-up of violent ethnic clashes, a senior United Nations official warned today.

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan armed group notorious for abducting children to use as sex slaves and soldiers, is a deadly threat to communities in the extreme west of southern Sudan, said David Gressly, Regional Coordinator for South Sudan at the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS).

The LRA continues to wage its campaign of terror in Western Equatoria state – looting and ransacking homes, churches and health facilities; stealing food, killing innocent civilians; and abducting young girls and boys, according to a report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this month.

WHO noted that attacks intensified in August causing mass displacements in the region, with over 80,000 people forced from their homes in Western Equatoria and Central Equatoria this year.

Mr. Gressly underscored lethal inter-tribal clashes – revolving around resources particularly cattle, water and land – as another critical area of concern, stressing that “land remains an unresolved major issue, perpetuating violence in southern Sudan.”

Last month the UN humanitarian coordinator in southern Sudan reported that over 2,000 people have died in inter-tribal violence and more than 250,000 people have been displaced since January.

“We’ve seen a series of conflicts since March among a number of ethnic tribes,” said Mr. Gressly, noting that these recent local conflicts – over land boundaries and who controls the resources within those boundaries – are particularly disturbing because of the large number of civilians who have been targeted and killed.

“Typically in the past a lot of these attacks were raids in search of cattle in which civilians were killed,” he said but there has been a “major increase in the number of civilians killed, particularly women and children. And it seems that the women and children are not just killed in crossfire but have been targeted.”

Mr. Gressly stressed that even with the help of UNMIS, it is extremely difficult for the Government to respond to these attacks, which are usually launched as pre-dawn raids and are over in a matter of hours.

“We are placing our own forces on the ground to try to check these problems, but we’re dealing with a very remote area,” he said. “Jonglei state is about the size of Bangladesh and has approximately 30 miles of unpaved road and the rest are tracks which virtually are useless six or seven months of the year because of rains.”

In addition to combating the deadly violence, Mr. Gressly said that much work needs to be done on the political front to complete milestones set in the 2005 peace treaty which ended one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest civil wars.

At least 2 million people were killed and 4 million others uprooted over the 20 years of fighting between southern separatists and the national Government in the north before the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

The CPA includes a provision for a referendum on independence for the south slated for 2011, following national elections next year.

“I think there is room for accommodation for either outcome of the referendum and there is still space and time for that but it will require hard decisions in the very near future on how… both sides will live side-by-side either in a united Sudan or two separate countries,” he said.

Mr. Gressly said the two parties need to accelerate efforts towards holding a referendum, including finalizing decisions about who is eligible to vote, what percentage of vote required for succession or unity, and what percentage of registered voters need to vote for the referendum to be recognized.

“These decisions need to be made in the very near future because it will take time to put in place a commission for the ballot and the mechanics to put in place a free and fair vote.” The alternative is a “very real threat” of renewed conflict, he said.

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