KHARTOUM’S SEIZURE OF DISPUTED ABYEI DISTRICT COULD LAUNCH NEW WAR BETWEEN NORTH AND SOUTH SUDAN
Last weekend’s military occupation of the disputed Abyei district by the Northern Sudanese Army is the latest step in a series of armed clashes in the area that threaten to reignite hostilities between North and South Sudan in the lead-up to South Sudan’s official declaration of independence on July 9.
Lying on the border of South Kordofan province (part of North Sudan) and Bahr al-Ghazal (part of South Sudan), the oil rich Abyei district is home to the Ngok Dinka and, for part of the year at least, the Arab Missiriya. The Ngok Dinka are well represented in the highest levels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Abyei lies atop the highly productive Muglad Basin, though some believe intensive production in this area since the 1990s has largely depleted the reserves in this area. Several important pipelines from other oil-producing regions run through Abyei.
Both North and South Sudan were to have withdrawn military forces from Abyei by May 21, except for a small joint force that would continue to provide security. Yet, a battalion of roughly 200 Northern troops was attacked seven kilometers south of Abyei’s northern border during their withdrawal on May 19, leaving 22 soldiers dead and many more missing. The Northern battalion was being escorted by United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) units, which also came under attack. Northern military officials immediately blamed SPLA forces for the attack (SUNA, May 20; May 21). Khartoum responded by occupying Abyei with a force that included 15 tanks, while government aircraft were observed bombing a number of villages (Sudan Tribune, May 22). Armed looters swept through Abyei Town on May 23 without opposition, displacing nearly the entire population.
While the identity of the attackers has not been confirmed, the attack on the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) may have been a Southern response to an incident on May 1, when an SPLA unit attempted to prevent an SAF convoy of 200 men and six land-cruisers mounted with machine-guns from entering Abyei. The SAF force opened fire, killing 11 Southern troops and three civilians (AFP, May 3).
An SAF statement accused the SPLM of consolidating its military presence in Abyei since December 2010, in violation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) (Sudan Vision, May 23). Khartoum maintains that Abyei remains part of the North under the constitution until a referendum determines otherwise. At a rally in South Kordofan on April 27, President Omar al-Bashir affirmed this position and expressed his support for the Missiriya tribe (SUNA, April 27).
Armed clashes occurred between the Missiriya and the Ngok Dinka in 2007; and, by 2008, units of the SAF were battling the SPLA for control of Abyei, destroying much of the housing and infrastructure in the process. Arbitration at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague reduced the size of the district, giving the productive Heglig oil field to the North and promising a plebiscite on the future status of Abyei to take place simultaneously with a referendum on Southern independence in January 2011.
Inability to agree on whether the pastoral Missirya, who traditionally cross into Abyei with their herds for six to eight months of the year, should have the right to vote in a plebiscite on whether Abyei should join the North or South led to a postponement of the vote. The postponement was followed by renewed clashes between Ngok Dinka and Missiriya in late February/early March (for the background to the conflict in Abyei, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, October 4, 2010).
UNMIS peacekeepers stationed in the region stopped patrols in Abyei after the SAF ambush, citing the danger presented by the violence (Reuters, May 23). With some 15,000 to 20,000 residents losing their possessions and homes, a spokesman for the Government of the South Sudan (GoSS) appealed to the UN peacekeepers to “come out of their bunkers” (Sudan Tribune, May 23). The UN mission’s mandate expires on July 9, when the South is scheduled to become an independent state in consequence of the January referendum. According to a state minister of the Khartoum government: “UMNIS must pack their belongings because the time has come for their departure” (Sudan Tribune, May 23).
The UNMIS report on the incident failed to assign blame for the ambush, which brought an angry response from Northern officials, who said the UN’s “state of partiality and lack of clarity” would only encourage further violations of the 2005 CPA (Sudan Tribune, May 22).
The United States has warned that a continuing occupation of Abyei by Northern forces would jeopardize ongoing efforts to normalize relations with Khartoum, including removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism (Reuters, May 23). Northern officials have vowed their troops will remain in place until new security arrangements are made.
AL-SHABAAB ISSUES STATEMENT ON CRUCIAL BATTLE FOR MOGADISHU’S BAKARA MARKET
For several years now, Mogadishu’s densely populated and labyrinthine Bakara Market has served as a stronghold for local al-Shabaab militants as well as provided a major source of revenues for the movement through donations, extortion and “taxation.” A continuing offensive by Ugandan and Burundian troops belonging to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)—supported by soldiers of Somalia’ s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Sufi Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a militia—has now penetrated the southern and western boundaries of the market. While the battle for Bakara will undoubtedly present all the difficulties of urban warfare, its conclusion will play a large role in determining the future of both the rebel Islamist movement and the struggling TFG.
A new statement from al-Shabaab describes the “sinister motives of the Ugandan and Burundian troops and their apostate allies,” suggesting their efforts to take the Bakara market are intended to destroy the local economy:
At a time when the people of Mogadishu are recovering from the severe droughts that had crippled much of the country in the recent months, and started rebuilding their shattered lives, the African crusaders embarked on a brutal campaign to demolish everything the innocent civilians have thus far managed to construct… Lured by greed and an opportunity to pillage and plunder the wealth of the civilians, the apostate militia [i.e. TFG forces], aided by the tanks and artillery of the African crusaders, launched an offensive on Bakara Market, where tens of thousands of civilians gather every day to earn their living. And as the people went about their usual businesses, the militia raided them with mortars, shells and bullets, specifically targeting large companies, hotels, warehouses and stores, and indiscriminately killing dozens of innocent civilians (Press Office of the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, May 24).
The Bakara Market is an important source of food, clothing and arms for local Somalis. The TFG is intent on ending the latter trade, which offers everything from assault rifles to anti-aircraft guns. In 1993, Bakara was the scene of fighting between Somali militias and U.S. forces, and in 2007, a major fire was started during combat between Ethiopian troops and fighters of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).
As AMISOM forces tighten their grip on the approaches to the market, AMISOM commander Major General Nathan Mugisha has issued an appeal to local residents to “minimize unnecessary movements within the Bakara market area to avoid being caught up in crossfire” (Horseed Media, May 12). Shabaab fighters are digging trenches to prevent the entry of tanks or other military vehicles.
Shortly after the latest operation was launched on May 12, AMISOM forces reported killing Abdufita Muhammad, the Shabaab commander in the Bakara market, his intelligence officer Abdiwahab Shaykh Dole and two Pakistani mujahideen identified as Hussein Abassi and Abdullahi Yalb (SUNA Times, May 15).
The struggle for the market has also led to civilian casualties, though both sides deny shelling civilians. A mortar round fired at a women’s clothing market killed at least 14 people on May 18 (AFP, May 18). An AMISOM spokesman said the mission has “designated Bakara market a ‘no-fire’ zone and does not fire artillery or mortars into the market. We know that the extremists, who extort money from the businesses, have established a stronghold in the market and deliberately shield their reign of terror behind the civilians and business community who make their living there” (Horseed Media, May 21; AFP, May 20). The fighting is reported to have claimed 50 civilian lives and wounded 100 others in the period of May 22 to May 24 (Mareeg.com, May 24).
In a sign of confidence in AMISOM gains in Mogadishu, AMISOM has begun relocating its civilian staff and police element to Mogadishu from Nairobi, where they have been based since 2008 due to instability in the capital. The TFG has also promised to establish a police post in the market, promising that government forces will not engage in looting and robbery, a recurring complaint from local people (SUNA Times, May 23). Once reduced to a few square blocks around the presidential palace, the TFG and AMISOM now control roughly 60 percent of the city.