Clashes between Southern Sudanese government forces and fighters loyal to a militia leader in Malakal town, Upper Nile State, have forced "a sizeable number" of civilians to flee their homes, an official said.
The flare-up, according to observers, has renewed fears that conflict could resume in the region, two years before the end of the six-year interim period designated by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
"So many civilians were displaced," said Changson Chang, Southern Sudanese government spokesman and part of a committee monitoring the clashes. "Most of the civilians are displaced outside Malakal and they are suffering."
Chang said the number of displaced was "sizeable because [the fighting] involved heavy weapons" and lasted the whole day. "We hope some of them will come back, and we will ascertain the numbers soon," he added.
The fighting broke out after Gabriel Tang returned to Malakal, a town on the undemarcated border between south and north Sudan. He came from Khartoum where he had sought sanctuary and, according to local officials, resisted an attempt to arrest him for crimes committed in 2006.
Hours later, Southern President Salva Kiir named a committee to monitor the situation. His government has since appealed for aid for those affected.
"Tang is a spoiler," said Major General James Hoth, deputy chief of staff of the Southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). "He has never been in the SPLA. He has been with the government militia."
Under the CPA, all militia forces were to be aligned to either the SPLA or the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). Tang aligned his militia to the SAF.
The SAF in turn dispatched Tang's militias to join its component of the Joint/Integrated Units. Under the CPA, the JIU is comprised of equal numbers of troops from the SAF and SPLA.
The latest flare-up is the second time Tang's fighters have engaged the SPLA. In 2006, fighting left hundreds dead and displaced thousands. Kiir called on the Khartoum government to arrest Tang.
A statement issued by the government committee said Tang was asked by the SPLA to leave Malakal or hand himself over. Instead his men attacked government forces. Some JIU components from the SAF declined to join Tang, officials added.
"Tang is trying to put Sudan back to where [it] was before 2005," said SPLM deputy secretary-general Ann Itto.
Hoth said the commanding officer of the SAF component of the JIU, alongside 200 SAF/JIU forces, handed himself over to the SPLA during the fighting, saying he did not want to be part of the chaos.
The UN Mission in Sudan urged the SPLA and Tang to resolve their differences. It was essential for the military leadership of the SAF and the SPLA to ensure that the JIUs functioned together to protect civilians, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, UN special envoy to Sudan, said in a statement.
"It is a very difficult transition and if it is not managed well [Southern and Northern Sudan] can go back to war," Chang said.
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