Sudan still waging war in Nuba amid accusations of war crimes

NAIROBI, Kenya — Nearly three months after it started, a bloody conflict in the isolated hills of remote Sudan continues, largely unremarked on by either the news media or international diplomats.

On Tuesday, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, two leading human rights groups, accused the Sudanese government of indiscriminately bombing civilians and blocking humanitarian aid to the Nuba Mountains, warning of an impending crisis as food stocks are depleted.

"The bombing is terrorizing the civilian population, driving many into caves and onto mountaintops. It is totally disrupting their lives and cultivation of food," said Jehanne Henry, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who visited the area recently.

Earlier this month, the United Nations found that Sudanese government actions in the Nuba Mountains could amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The reports correspond with what McClatchy found during a visit to the war zone in late June and early July. Eyewitnesses told McClatchy that government helicopters had strafed fleeing civilians, government aircraft had bombed villages from the sky and that suspected opposition sympathizers had been executed in government-controlled areas.

The report Tuesday, a collaboration between the two human rights groups, also accused Sudanese President Omar al Bashir of breaking a unilateral two-week cease-fire he'd declared on Aug. 23.

An aid worker who's familiar with the area and has extensive contacts there confirmed that the cease-fire announcement never matched reality.

"The bombings continued just hours afterwards, and have continued nearly every day since," said the worker, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation.

According to the aid worker, there have been at least 15 aerial bombings and two ground attacks by government forces since the cease-fire declaration last week.

The rebel group that combating government forces in the area, the Nuba Mountains chapter of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, which was allied with southern Sudanese rebels during the long civil war that resulted in South Sudan's independence from Sudan on July 9, rejected Bashir's overture as a public relations stunt. When the country was divided last month, the Nuba Mountains remained in Sudan, even though much of their population identifies with South Sudan..

Like the people of South Sudan, the Nuba people are a religiously diverse group of darker-skinned Africans. Sudan, however, is led by an elite that identifies itself as Arab and subscribes to a divisive conservative brand of Islam.

The U.S. State Department has called the government cease-fire declaration a "positive initial step" and strongly urged the Sudan People's Liberation Movement rebels to "show the same leadership and declare a two week cease-fire as well."

That stand has drawn criticism from a U.S. advocacy community that's long mobilized for tougher policies against Sudan, which has been accused of committing genocide in Darfur, another restive province, as well as atrocities during the wider civil war.

"Instead of putting out a public statement that validates Bashir's empty promises, the State Department should be working toward a real end to the continuing violence against the people of the Nuba Mountains," Amanda Hsiao wrote in a blog post for the Enough Project, a initiative under the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington research center.

The U.S. has a long history of intervening in the Nuba Mountains conflict, which has been ongoing since the early 1990s. The U.S. brokered a Nuba Mountains cease-fire in 2002, which then led to a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005 that ended the civil war and paved the way for South Sudan's independence.

Yet so far, U.S. action on the renewed war has been limited, with Washington's efforts in the region focused mainly on trying to smooth bitter relations between Sudan and South Sudan. American officials say they have few options, since leverage over the Sudanese government is limited after the U.S. already has imposed heavy sanctions on Sudan and its leaders.

The lack of international action highlights concerns that after Sudan's much-anticipated division, both countries would fall off the mainstream radar despite continuing problems and conflicts.

Aid workers estimate that more than 200,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in the Nuba Mountains. The Sudanese government is barring aid to the area. Aid workers fear that ground fighting will escalate after the seasonal rains end around mid-October.

Aid workers say that if no substantive humanitarian access is granted, residents will have difficulty feeding themselves. Residents haven't planted their crops because of fears of aerial attacks, aid workers say.

During the civil war, the Sudanese government often provoked famine in rebel areas and then restricted humanitarian aid as a means of weakening rebel support.

Fighting erupted in June this year after a disputed gubernatorial election. Tensions had been rising for months because of the impending separation of South Sudan, which would weaken the position of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-aligned Nuba Mountains.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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