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SUDAN: Southern militia merges with SPLM/A, agree to fight LRA togetherNAIROBI, 5 March 2004 (IRIN) - A government-backed militia, the Equatoria Defence Forces (EDF) on Friday officially merged with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), stating that they would fight the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group together.
A joint statement said the two groups had agreed on the need to rid southern Sudan of "foreign-armed groups", in order to create "conducive security conditions" for the return of Sudan's 3 million to 4 million internally displaced people and 570,000 refugees once a peace agreement was signed.
At a ceremony in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, the EDF leader, Dr Theophilus Lotti, said about 10 days ago, forces from the two groups "launched a big operation to kick out the LRA from Sudan". This week, heavy fighting was reported between the SPLM/A forces, and the Equatoria-based LRA, which the SPLM/A accuses of operating out of government-controlled territory in southern Sudan.
The statement said the two sides had realigned for the sake of "reconciliation, forgiveness and unity for the people of Sudan in general and South Sudan in particular", adding that a united southern Sudan would accelerate the peace process.
The EDF was one of an estimated 25 government-backed militias operating in southern Sudan which actively oppose the SPLM/A. Many of these forces are part of the South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF), an umbrella of militias that signed an agreement with Khartoum in 1997, and control large areas of western Upper Nile, Equatoria, parts of Bahr al-Ghazal and areas around the region's numerous garrison towns. These militias are usually personality and ethnicity driven, recruiting locally from the areas they control.
Martin Kenyi, the EDF commander and formerly one of the 11-man Military High Command of the SSDF, participated on the side of the government in peace negotiations with the SPLM/A which led to the signing of an agreement on security arrangements last September.
The security arrangements for the six-year interim period, which are specifically endorsed by the merger document, state that no armed groups apart from the government forces and the SPLM/A will be allowed to operate in Sudan during the interim period.
The merger is part of the SPLM/A's concerted efforts to bury differences with its enemies in southern Sudan as quickly as possible, as part of a south-south reconciliation process. There have been a number of key successes to date, with Riek Machar and Lam Akol - who defected in 1991 - realigning with the SPLM/A in 2002 and 2003 respectively, after many years of fighting.
But many of the militias, who are armed and in control of strategic areas of southern Sudan, feel they have much to lose by aligning with SPLM/A, which they deeply mistrust and consider Dinka-dominated.