Even as the North and South Sudan sought to extricate themselves from the crisis in Abyei, more evidence emerged today that violence will prove a plague on both sides of Sudan's border. Citing confidential U.N. documents it has acquired the Associated Press is reporting that Southern Sudan soldiers fired indiscriminately on unarmed men, women and children, killing or wounding hundreds of civilians, in an April 23 attack on a rival ethnic group living in a remote village near the Nile River. One survivor told U.N. investigators that the southern soldiers "shot at anything that was moving or standing" amid the riverside scrub brush. Such brutality has long been associated with the irregular forces fielded by the northern government in its various efforts to restrain opposition to rule from Khartoum. The AP says the documents raise "serious questions about human rights abuses carried out by southern forces, known as the Sudan People's Liberation Army, and about how much control their leaders have over them."
The South, of course, faces many obstacles as it nears its July 9 independence, and SPLA forces have been receiving supplies and training from the United States in an effort to professionalize the rebel forces, but the report suggests how difficult that process may be. The AP says it is not clear at this point if any of the southern soldiers involved in the attack were among SPLA troops trained by the United States. Ethnic and political tensions apparently helped provoke the massacre, which began following a clash between SPLA troops and members of a former rebel group that had been supported by the North. The murdered villagers were members of the same tribe as the rebel group. Witnesses said SPLA troops began firing on villagers as they fled to the Nile. One told U.N. investigators that he believed 254 people had been killed and that many bodies had been dumped into the river.
An SPLA spokesperson, Col. Philip Aguer, told AP on Thursday that 165 people died in the battle, including 30 civilians. According to Aguer, mixed among fighters the SPLA battled were women and children, some of them armed. If civilians were killed, it was in the crossfire, he said.
The AP report concludes: "Analysts say Southern Sudan must address its tribal tensions or risk further conflict. The International Crisis Group said in a recent report that tribal violence threatens civilians and further polarization of ethnic groups.
"'In recent months soldiers have committed serious abuses against civilians in the context of military operations against the rebels,' said Jehanne Henry, Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch. 'The SPLA needs to take steps to ensure soldiers do not commit such abuses. They need to improve command and control over soldiers and ... hold soldiers accountable for crimes committed against civilians.'"
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