More than 73,000 people have fled the Northern oil state of Southern Kordofan after heavy fighting broke out on 5 June between the Northern army (the Sudan Armed Forces - SAF) and former members of the ex-rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
What is happening?
Heavy fighting started in the state capital Kadugli. SAF have launched multiple aerial bombardments in the Nuba Mountain area of Southern Kordofan. Civil society groups and eyewitnesses report the killings of civilians and house-to-house searches in Kadugli and surrounding villages. Religious leaders accuse government forces of “ethnic cleansing”, accusations Khartoum rejects.
Eyewitnesses who fled Kadugli described people shot in the street, mass arrests and the looting and burning of buildings, including aid agency offices and church buildings. They claim they were targeted for their ethnicity.
Humanitarian agencies are still unable to freely access the civilian population, despite improvements in the security situation, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a 21 June update.
Information from inside the Nuba Mountains is limited, with mobile telephone coverage reportedly cut in many areas.
The Enough Project campaign group say satellite photographs show a build-up of SAF troops and military vehicles in the area. Meanwhile airspace over Southern Kordofan has been severely restricted.
The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, says SAF have threatened to shoot down aircraft flying without its permission.
Why did the fighting start?
Southern Kordofan was a key battleground during Sudan’s 1983-2005 civil war. Many in the Nuba Mountains sided with the then rebel SPLA, which has now become the official army of the south. Now they find themselves on the wrong side of the border from former comrades as the South prepares to separate, and have resisted surrendering weapons to forces they see as hostile.
South Sudan is due to become independent on 9 July, and Khartoum has said it will not tolerate the existence of two armies within its borders. The SPLA says it has no forces in the North, and that it is not responsible for its former members in the state.
Khartoum says fighting began after it tried to disarm SPLA forces in Kadugli. However, eyewitnesses say that it was a pre-planned operation by the SAF and aligned militia. Nuba activists are clear it is not a North-South conflict: rather they say it is a battle to protect basic rights and their way of life.
Fighters there are well armed and have a long experience of guerilla war.
Who are the Nuba?
The Nuba are a mix of over 50 different peoples, mainly settled farmers, who live in the scattered upland areas. They include Christians, Muslims and followers of traditional beliefs. In ethnic terms, the Nuba usually identify more closely with the “African” southerners than their northern Arab neighbours. The highlands have provided refuge for centuries, including to groups fleeing slave raids.
The wider region of Southern Kordofan is a volatile mix of different rival Arab and African groups, where old enmities from the war are exacerbated by pressure on grazing land.
As many as 40,000 Nuba soldiers are estimated to remain inside the SPLA. However, most of these are thought to be deployed inside the south.
Who are the leaders?
Opposition forces inside the Nuba are led by former deputy governor Abdulaziz Al-Hilu, an experienced soldier and guerrilla commander. Hilu is number two in the Northern branch of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the south’s ruling party. He pulled out of the gubernatorial election in May alleging vote-rigging by the North’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP).
That vote was won by Ahmed Haroun, an NCP stalwart who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes committed in Sudan's western Darfur region. He has demanded Hilu be arrested.
Khartoum alleges these opposition forces are being backed by Juba, allegations rejected by the South.
That is likely to increase tensions between the soon to be separate nations.
What are the Nuba’s grievances?
Many in the Nuba feel as though they have been abandoned by former comrades in the South, alongside whom they fought during the civil war.
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement set up referenda for the South to vote on its independence, and another vote for the contested area of Abyei, to choose whether it is part of North or South.
However, Southern Kordofan, as well as the Northern border state of Blue Nile, were given “Popular Consultations”, a loosely defined process to ask the people what they wanted for the future.
Many feel that it did not provide a mechanism to guarantee the rights they had fought for, and since the fighting broke out, Haroun has suspended the process.
What is the international community doing?
Peacekeepers from the UN Mission to Sudan (UNMIS) have been criticized for a lack of response to the outbreak of fighting. Officials, however, have said they are doing the best they can in a tough situation. Aid workers and UN humanitarian agencies are struggling to get access to the trouble spots. However, the World Food Programme and partners have delivered some 185 tons of food to 34,500 people in the state as of 19 June.
The fighting has also sparked international condemnation. “The treatment of civilians in Southern Kordofan, including the reported human rights abuses and targeting of people along ethnic lines, is reprehensible,” said Valerie Amos, UN under-secretary for humanitarian affairs, on 21 June.
US President Barack Obama has urged an immediate ceasefire. “The situation in Southern Kordofan is dire, with deeply disturbing reports of attacks based on ethnicity," Obama said on 22 June. Without a ceasefire, “the roadmap for better relations with the government of Sudan cannot be carried forward, which will only deepen Sudan’s isolation in the international community,” Obama warned.
Will that pressure work?
Sudanese President Omar al Bashir may be many things, but he is also determined. He has already shrugged off an arrest warrant on genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes charges in the western Darfur region. Threats of further sanctions may do little to scare him, although Khartoum is keen to engage Western powers to secure relief on up to US$38 billion of debt.
But losing the South is a major loss of face for Northern leaders, and they are keen to bolster their position with a show of force. Time is short. Even if a deal is struck now, fighting also has a long-term impact, aid workers warn.
The mass displacement of people fleeing fighting will impact agricultural production, with the harvest period due in a few months time. That could lead to potential major food shortages later in the year.