Fighting spreads as Sudan faces more civil war

NAIROBI, Kenya — Fighting in Sudan spread to a new hot-spot region Friday, raising concerns that the end of one bloody Sudanese civil war might merely usher in a new one after a decade of international diplomacy helped split the country into two nations earlier this year.

Clashes erupted after midnight early Friday in Sudan's Blue Nile state, as government forces quickly expelled from its capital city forces loyal to Gov. Malik Agar, who heads the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North opposition party.

Agar's party — once part of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement rebel group, which now rules the country of South Sudan, which separated from Sudan in July after decades of war — says the attacks are a clear sign that President Omar al Bashir has no intention of making peace.

"They are on the record saying that they will not allow the SPLM to stay in the north," said Yasir Arman, the secretary-general of the northern opposition party, speaking of members of Bashir's regime.

"We still seek a peaceful settlement, but it takes two to tango," he said.

The first bout of renewed fighting between the northern opposition group and government forces began in June in Sudan's Nuba Mountains region. That conflict continues, and a United Nations report last month said the government's actions there, which include aerial bombing over civilian areas and ethnically targeted executions, could constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Nuba Mountains Sudan People's Liberation Movement also had signed an alliance with rebel groups in Darfur to coordinate strategies against Bashir.

The clashes in Blue Nile open the war in another front, and end what seemed to be the last best hope for halting Sudan's downhill slide back to a wider war.

Agar had been trying to negotiate a cease-fire for the Nuba Mountains and a resolution to rising tensions in Blue Nile, first through the African Union's mediation, led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, and last week through the intervention of Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi. Both negotiations failed.

Now that Agar has been pushed back into the bush to fight, a negotiated settlement seems even more remote.

McClatchy reported in July that sources connected to the Sudanese regime said that the country's military had made a quiet internal power bid and was now calling Bashir's shots.

The latest developments seem to back up those reports, said Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, a regional analyst for Control Risks, a risk consultancy firm.

"That they would refuse to address the SPLM-North politically despite the risks involved shows that shrewd political figures within the NCP have lost ground in favor of security hard-liners," he said, referring to the ruling National Congress Party.

Both sides gave competing accounts of who fired the first shot Friday, but both had been mobilizing forces for a possible outbreak of hostilities for weeks.

Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains were major fronts for the southern-led Sudan People's Liberation Movement rebellion, which led to the U.S.-brokered 2005 peace deal that paved the way for South Sudan's independence.

So far, that peace deal has managed to fend off a full return to war between the African South Sudan and Arab-led north Sudan, but the burgeoning conflict involving their old brothers in arms is putting South Sudan's leaders in a delicate spot.

"The Juba government might be forced into providing active support to the SPLM-N rebels, which would throw the two Sudans into a de facto proxy war," Gallopin said.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya. He's covered the split up of Sudan and South Sudan.)


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