KHARTOUM/JUBA (Reuters) - The Sudanese army and forces aligned to South Sudan clashed Friday in a flashpoint state in Sudan that lies on the border with the newly independent south, officials on both sides said.
Sudan’s Blue Nile state is home to many supporters of the south’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Khartoum has previously threatened to disarm southern-aligned fighters in Blue Nile.
“The Sudanese army started the attack on our positions,” Malik Agar, governor of Blue Nile and member of the northern branch of the SPLM, told Reuters by telephone.
He accused the government of planning the attack because it moved soldiers and 12 tanks into al-Damazin, the capital of Blue Nile state. Agar also said the Sudanese government launched air raids on an area around the Blue Nile town of Kormok, saying a woman and child were killed.
Sudanese army spokesman Al-Sowarmy Khaled Saad told Reuters that SPLM forces attacked the Sudanese army late Thursday in and around al-Damazin. It said the army responded and was now in control.
There was no immediate government comment on any aerial raid, a charge the governor made after Saad spoke, nor was there any independent confirmation of such an aerial incident.
Similar clashes and mutual accusations about who was to blame have led to an escalation in violence in South Kordofan, another state in the north that is on the southern border.
Agar earlier told Sudan’s state news agency SUNA that clashes erupted between the SPLM-aligned forces at the entrance of al-Damazin and the Sudanese army forces during the night of Thursday to Friday.
“Clashes quickly spread to all areas where (forces of the SPLM) were stationed,” SUNA quoted him as saying.
South Sudan split from the rest of the country in July after a referendum on secession, part of the 2005 peace deal that ended decades of conflict between north and south. The separation was relatively smooth but tensions simmer.
Under the 2005 deal, residents of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, where the two sides have also clashed, were offered “popular consultations” to determine ties to Khartoum. These have not been completed.
“(Khartoum’s) objective is to knock out the SPLM-North before they become a serious military force,” Chris Phillips from the Economist Intelligence Unit told Reuters by telephone.
He added that Khartoum might see the group as a fresh secessionist threat to Sudan, which also faces rebels in the western region of Darfur. Some observers say residents in Blue Nile are not seeking to split from Sudan but do want to change President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum.
Yasir Arman, secretary-general of the SPLM’s northern branch, said in a statement that the Sudanese army attacked the residence of Al-Jundi Suleiman, commander of the joint integrated units in Blue Nile, and then other areas.
“The offensive was later intensified to include all SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) positions,” he said, adding that the Sudanese army had in the past few days moved armaments including tanks into the area.
In a statement carried by SUNA, the Sudanese government said it had issued orders for the SPLM to hand over those involved and said it would arrest those who refused.
It accused units loyal to the SPLM of launching an attack on Sudanese army soldiers who were also part of the integrated forces in Blue Nile.
Fouad Hikmat from the International Crisis Group said Sudan’s ruling party believed the “SPLM in the north, in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, is a threat for them politically, not just militarily and this could be a vanguard to mobilise the new South of the North of Sudan, against their intentions to continue ruling Sudan as they have done in the past 20 years.”
One observer who has worked in Blue Nile and the south said southern-aligned forces in Blue Nile were indigenous to the region and, unlike southern army units that had to move south after secession, these units could not be moved out.
Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum and Hereward Holland in Juba; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Myra MacDonald