KIIR ADEM, Sudan | Craters and damaged huts mark this town that lies near the divide between north and south Sudan - the result, southern officials say, of repeated bombings by warplanes sent by Khartoum in hopes of scuttling an independence vote.
The Associated Press saw the damage during a visit to the site this week. Sudan’s government denies it was involved in any aerial attack against the south. Southern officials and commanders reject that claim of innocence.
Fearful of more attacks, thousands of civilians have fled the verdant fishing village of Kiir Adem. The southern army, which fought a two-decade civil war with the north until a 2005 peace agreement, has moved in three anti-aircraft guns but says it will exercise restraint against what it calls northern provocations.
Southern Sudan’s Jan. 9 independence vote was agreed on in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). That vote will likely see Africa’s largest country split in two and create a new nation - Southern Sudan.
“Definitely they are making aggressions, calculated moves,” said Col. Philip Aguer, spokesman for the southern military, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). “We know the other side wants war, because it will make the CPA come to an end.”
Standing near two of the newly arrived anti-aircraft guns, SPLA Lt. Col. Steven Bol Kuany held out a gnarled piece of metal that he identified as shrapnel from a bomb dropped by northern Sudanese MiG or Antonov aircraft in sorties that began last month.
The first happened late in the day of Nov. 11, when three Chinese-made MiG fighter jets and two Antonovs passed over Kiir Adem, dropping at least one bomb. At first, southern officials downplayed the event, saying the bomb landed on the north side of the Kiir River in what they consider to be northern territory. The north said at the time it was targeting fighters from Darfur’s most powerful rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement
But the aircraft returned the next day. This time bombs fell on the southern side of the river, wounding seven southern troops and five civilians, said the south’s top officer in the region, Maj. Gen. Santino Deng Wol.
During a visit to the bomb site, an AP reporter saw a crater 30 feet in diameter and about 6 feet deep, several hundred yards from a major southern military instillation and 100 yards from the only major bridge in the area. A second, smaller crater was punched into the ground closer to the base.
Circular patches of charred earth marked the spots where Gen. Wol said a dozen soldier huts once stood before the munitions set them ablaze. He said some civilian huts also burned. Gen. Wol said he believes the north was targeting the bridge.
“When they said it was accidental, we gave them the benefit of the doubt, but when it repeated itself for the second and third time, no, you cannot believe it,” Col. Aguer told AP.
The Khartoum government has denied bombing southern areas. Sudan army spokesman Sawarmy Khaled said Sunday the repeated accusations by the south “are but attempts for a cover-up for its hosting of Darfur rebel movements.”
“These are baseless accusations which we have repeatedly denied as baseless,” Mr. Khaled said in remarks published by the daily newspaper Akhbar Ayoum. “We as armed forces, we operate in the areas north of the 1956 line, not south of it.”
That may be technically true. Kiir Adem lies about 15 miles north of the north-south border line drawn on a map when Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956.
But the 1,300-mile border has never been demarcated, and ethnic Dinkas - a southern tribe - have always occupied this area, making it a de facto southern region. Ethnic Arabs hold most of the power in the north.
Rabie Abdel Attie, spokesman for the north’s ruling party, denied that Khartoum is bombing areas under southern control.
“If we wanted to make war, we wouldn’t have stopped it in the first place,” he said, referring to the peace agreement.
Gen. Wol said the north’s planes returned again on Nov. 24 and dropped bombs near Kiir Adem, wounding four soldiers. The next day, another flyover took place, according to witnesses. This time the SPLA fired back, a witness told AP, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisals from the south’s military.
Gen. Wol, when asked about the eyewitness report, did not deny his forces may have fired on northern planes.
“If someone comes in our place, we have to defend ourselves,” he said. “Otherwise, they’ll finish us.”
During the AP’s visit, southern troops cleaned an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a cargo truck. Others dug a long trench running south, away from the military encampment where soldiers’ families live. Asked if the SPLA would respond to provocations by the northern military, Col. Kuany said no.
“We cannot respond to them because of our referendum,” said Col. Kuany.
Pagan Amum, secretary-general of the south’s ruling party, said the south is ignoring provocations by the north and instead has proposed a joint north-south committee investigate the bombings and civilian casualties.
Southern leaders, Mr. Amum said, are doing “everything to ensure the process of implementation of the CPA is not derailed, especially now that we are getting nearer to the referendum.”
The total wounded in the attacks is believed to range from 16 to 22, with 10 to 11 of those being soldiers, according to interviews with southern army officials and multiple U.N. security reports. The AP was not able to confirm any deaths from the attacks, though southern army officials in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state reported one child went missing after one attack and was later found dead.
After the Nov. 12 attack, 1,500 people fled Kiir Adem to the town of Gok Machar, an hour’s drive away or about 24 hours on foot, said Gabriel Deng, the official tasked with aiding the displaced. After the Nov. 24 bombing, 1,100 more people fled, he said.
For those who survived two decades of north-south war - a conflict that killed more than 2 million people - the recent attacks are reminiscent of wartime raids by the northern military that indiscriminately bombed villages and rebel bases alike.
Still, some of the residents of Kiir Adem are refusing to leave. Rebecca Duany, a frail elderly woman in a soiled, flower-patterned dress, said that even if the bombings worsen she will remain here, where she owns land and where she can fish in the river.
“We will just die here,” she said dejectedly. Another woman sitting with her, the wife of a soldier, added that they had all registered here for the Jan. 9 vote, and “we were told that we have to vote where we registered.”
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