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Spectre of War Threatens Human Disaster in Sudan, Aid Groups Warn

Oxfam and others demands urgent diplomatic effort to prop up fragile five-year-old deal that ended decades of civil strife

by Mark Tran
International diplomacy to support a fragile peace deal in Sudan must intensify or the south of the country will suffer a humanitarian disaster, aid groups have warned.

The appeal from Oxfam and other NGOs for urgent preventive diplomacy comes as Africa's largest country marks the fifth anniversary of the January 2005 comprehensive peace agreement (CPA), signed by Sudan's central government and the southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

A 2008 UN handout photo of SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army) troops redeploying south from Abyei. Aid groups have warned that Sudan, Africa's largest country blessed with oil reserves, could descend into a new war unless the world community takes action to salvage a peace accord that ended one of the continent's longest conflicts five years ago. (AFP/UNMIS/File/Tim Mckulka) The deal, brokered by outside powers, ended one of Africa's longest conflicts: a civil war between north and south that began in 1983 and has claimed an estimated 2 million lives, driving 4 million people from their homes and destabilising much of east Africa.

Aid groups fear that tensions ahead of planned elections in April and a referendum in southern Sudan next year – tensions that will almost certainly result in secession – could kill off the CPA and unleash renewed strife.

Earlier this week, Ghazi Salaheddin, a senior adviser to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, raised the spectre of all-out hostilities when he warned that the 2011 referendum would lead to a new war unless key questions of the north-south border, nationality, the sharing of oil wealth and foreign debts of $30bn (£18.7bn) were settled.

Most of Sudan's oil fields straddle the north-south border, which has yet to be demarcated, while hundreds of thousands of southerners in the north, and northerners living in the south, would be left in limbo if their nationalities were left undefined. Salaheddin also highlighted the problem of whether a separate south would respect international agreements, citing the example of an agreement with Egypt over Nile waters.

Oxfam has pointed to a surge of violence last year in southern Sudan, with the death of 2,500 people and the flight of 350,000 people from their homes. Divisions within the SPLM add to the sense of volatility.

"With landmark elections and a referendum on the horizon, the peace deal is fragile and the violence likely to escalate even further unless there is urgent international engagement," the group said in a joint briefing paper.

Last year's death toll was higher than that in Darfur, in the west, where the humanitarian situation is already dire.

"Many of the victims have been women and children," Oxfam said. "In one attack, in a village in Jonglei state in August 2009, some 161 people were killed, most of them women and children." The CPA, which established the semi-autonomous government of southern Sudan in the regional capital, Juba, and in the 10 southern states, included an interim period of six years (2005 to 2011), during which the parties committed to meet several benchmarks and to address contentious issues left unresolved during the negotiations, such as the demarcation of the oil-rich north–south border.

According to aid groups, guarantors of the CPA, including the US, the EU and the UN, have been distracted by the crisis in Darfur and have failed to take a tough stand in response to clear violations of the agreement. This, they say, has allowed the situation to fester.

Oxfam and other aid groups are calling for concerted international mediation to help Khartoum and southern Sudan resolve key issues, above all those related to the 2011 referendum and its aftermath. They are urging the government of southern Sudan to move beyond civilian disarmament and strengthen its ability to provide internal security, protect civilians and address community grievances.

There is also a call on the UN security council to make the protection of civilians a priority when renewing the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force in April 2010, underscoring the mission's responsibility to meet threats from communal violence and the notorious Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group from northern Uganda.

On the humanitarian situation in southern Sudan, already one of the worst in the world, Oxfam says aid donors should immediately increase emergency funding and make this available through NGOs.

Britain yesterday announced a £54m aid package for humanitarian aid for elections. Most of the money – £36m – will be used by UN agencies and NGOs to provide emergency water and sanitation, healthcare and shelter.

The Sudanese archbishop, Daniel Deng, is scheduled to see Gordon Brown in London on Saturday. He will also see Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, on Monday as part of an international campaign to lobby world leaders for concerted international action.