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SUDAN: Paramilitary forces attack aid workers in the south

NAIROBI, 27 February 2004 (IRIN) - Paramilitary forces in Nimnim, western Upper Nile, deliberately attacked eight aid workers working in the area last week, according to the UN.

The early morning attack on 20 February was specifically directed at the aid workers' temporary compound outside the village of Nimnim, where they had been staying for three days distributing food and other relief items, said a statement issued by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator. The relief workers came under rifle, machine-gun, rocket-propelled-grenade and mortar fire from "unidentified militia forces" for 20 minutes, before the workers fled from the scene on foot.

The gunfire was directed at the aid workers' enclosure, avoiding the local village, and targeted the relief workers even as they were fleeing. Meanwhile, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/ Army (SPLM/A) forces, which nominally control the area, counterattacked.

The emergency response team of aid workers who were attacked consisted of three international staff members and five Sudanese from the UN Children's Fund, the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, World Vision International, a UN security officer and an official of the humanitarian wing of the SPLM/A, the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association.

A number of injuries were sustained, but not by the aid workers, who were flown out of the area by UN security later that day. Relief activities for about 30,000 people in the area have been suspended.

The UN strongly condemned the attacks, and called on the government of Sudan and the SPLM/A to identify, detain and prosecute the perpetrators, said a statement. "Attacks on humanitarian workers in conflict situations are war crimes," added the UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, Bernt Aasen.

Contacted on Friday, Samson Kwaje, the spokesman for the SPLM/A, said the SPLM/A had no details about the incident and was trying to establish the facts. He added that an investigation into the incident would fall under the aegis of the Verification and Monitoring Team, mandated to monitor ceasefire violations under a February 2003 agreement between the government and the SPLM/A.

According to regional analysts, those involved in the attack may have originally been aligned to James Leah Dui, a militia commander who had had forces based around Nimnim until he defected to the SPLM/A in January 2004.

The SPLM/A has been engaging in concerted efforts to realign itself with the country's plethora of government-backed militia forces, resulting in some recent successes such as the redefection to the movement of Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon and Lam Akol Ajawin, both of whom defected in 1991.

But territorial control and rivalry, ethnic tensions, competition for the spoils of war and distrust of the Dinka-dominated SPLM/A mean that many forces, or individuals within forces, are not willing to realign themselves. Many militia fighters are also unhappy at not being included in the ongoing peace talks in Kenya between the SPLM/A and the government. The result is a large number of armed and disgruntled militias in Sudan with shifting and opportunistic allegiances to different factions and leaders, say regional analysts.

Since the 1980s, the Sudanese government has used militias, which it arms and supports logistically, for various purposes, such as clearing and controlling oil-rich areas, and sowing dissent within the SPLM/A in a divide-and-rule tactic.

There are about 25 government-aligned militias in southern Sudan, which are centralised under the Sudanese army, whose intelligence wing oversees operational matters. They are usually based close to garrison towns, recruited locally and are personality- and ethnicity-driven. Most of them operate under the umbrella of the South Sudan Defence Forces.

Theme (s): Conflict,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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