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Analysis: Southern Sudan disarmament raises fears of fresh violence

JUBA, 22 September 2009 (IRIN) - The recent campaign by the Southern Sudanese authorities to seize illegal arms has yielded a "fearsome arsenal" of weapons, but critics warn that forcible disarmament could spark further violence.

Security forces launched the campaign in the Southern capital of Juba on 9 September, with police and soldiers searching houses for illegal weapons.

"This is the first step we have taken to collect the guns from the people, and it will continue until we make sure that all these weapons are in the stores," said Southern President Salva Kiir on 13 September.

"The presence of the guns in the hands of the people increases insecurity, because there are people who want to keep the guns so they can loot at night, and can kill," said Kiir, who is also the first Vice-President of Sudan.

The Southern government plans to roll out the programme across the semi-autonomous region. "These operations are continuing daily," Maj-Gen Gier Chuang, Minister of Internal Affairs, said in a broadcast on Sudan Radio on 17 September.

"These things will not stop only in Juba - we will continue doing the same exercise in the other states," he added. "We have instructed the leaders of the organized forces in all states in Southern Sudan to conduct the same operations."

Awash with weapons

Supporters say the campaign was badly needed, as the region is awash with weapons after the 22-year-long civil war, which ended in a 2005 peace deal.

Chuang said more than 1,000 weapons were seized in Juba town, with TV screening images of hundreds of AK-47 assault rifles, several heavy machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades with launchers.

"This is a good thing, because civilians should not have weapons like this," said trader James Gatch. "Why do you need big weapons unless you are preparing to make war?"

The campaign follows a string of bloody clashes in the south.

More than 2,000 people have died and 250,000 been displaced in inter-ethnic violence across Southern Sudan since January, Lise Grande, UN Deputy Resident Coordinator in Southern Sudan, told reporters on 12 August.

In the latest clash, state authorities in Jonglei reported that at least 102 people were killed on 20 September when Lou Nuer gunmen attacked the Dinka Hol village of Duk Padiet.

According to the UN, the rate of violent deaths in the south now surpasses that in the war-torn western region of Darfur.

"Taking illegally held guns will mean there are [fewer] weapons for people to cause trouble with," said Major General Kuol Dein Kuol, spokesman for the south’s military, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

"Only the official security forces and the police should hold weapons, and it is their job to provide security."

Forces behind the violence

Many in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) claim the violence is backed by former civil war enemies in the north.

“Senior figures in the SPLM have blamed the north for supplying arms, and there are plenty of grassroots reports of military aircraft being used, and military uniforms and brand new weapons being seen,” wrote Sudan analyst John Ashworth in a September report for campaign group Pax Christi.

Northern officials in Khartoum have repeatedly denied all claims they are backing militias in the south. Osman al-Agbash, spokesman for the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), has called such allegations "baseless".

Ashworth warned that others might be responsible too. "Not all the culprits can be traced to Khartoum, and some may have links to SPLM," he added, warning that local ethnic tensions may be being exploited.

Kiir has said he fears violence will escalate ahead of elections due in April 2010, and an independence referendum for the South due in January 2011.

Rural security problems

Removing the weapons is key but disarmament outside urban centres is complex. With often extremely limited security in remote regions, many feel forced to re-arm to protect themselves.

"Outside the town, we need to protect ourselves and our cows," said Matthew Deng, who comes from the eastern state of Jonglei. "If they make me give up my gun and my neighbour keeps his, then they will take all we have and kill us. We don’t feel safe without a weapon."

Previous disarmament campaigns have been criticized for exacerbating violence through selective targeting of communities based on ethnic and political lines.

Heavy-handed and ineffective, they have left regions at risk of attack from their still armed neighbours.

"While reducing the circulation of small arms is essential in order to yield a peace dividend, disarming the civilian population in a fragile post-conflict environment presents many pitfalls," warned Adam O’Brien in a January report for the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey.

Other observers point to the long years of bitter fighting between rival communities during the civil war. At the time, rival factions of the SPLA split between Nuer and Dinka forces and battled each other.

"Some communities have perceived disarmament as being targeted along ethnic lines, which has exacerbated inter-communal divisions," the Small Arms Survey warned in another report in May.

It is a grievance that is repeated across the region. "It is better that no one has weapons than everyone have guns," said John Tut, who comes from the Lou Nuer region of Akobo, the scene of recent heavy attacks.

"If it is only one side that is strong and the other that is [weak], then that will make more fighting and not less," he added. "That is what has happened in Akobo."

Jonglei precedent

Critics say forcible disarmament has not worked in the south. For example, the authorities launched a forcible disarmament in 2006 in Jonglei State, securing some 3,000 guns. Subsequent battles, however, have left at least 1,600 people dead.

"The Jonglei campaign turned into one of the bloodiest military actions in [Southern] Sudan since the end of the second civil war and failed to improve long-term security," O’Brien said.

Kiir has urged people to “work together with the security forces to get rid of all the guns”, warning that those who try to hide their weapons will be caught in subsequent arms sweeps.

"We know some people have run outside Juba with their guns to go and hide them so that they will come back with them again, but we will track them down," Kiir said.

"Some people have dug their guns inside their own houses, but we will still get them out from those graves."


Copyright © IRIN 2009
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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