"Part of the town is controlled by Joint Integrated Units [JIUs] allied to the Sudan Armed Forces, and the southern areas by the Sudan People's Liberation Army [SPLA]," said a local resident, who requested anonymity.
Malakal town is just one of many potential flashpoints for the 2005 north-south Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
The agreement halted a war that began in 1983 over resources, power, religion and self-determination. Its endgame will require border demarcation, voter registration, national elections, and an eventual referendum on southern secession, all by the end of 2011.
The recent arbitration on the region of Abyei deals with only one of a range of potentially explosive problems.
The casualties, injuries and displacement of the long civil war dwarf Sudan’s other conflicts, including Darfur. Some estimates suggest more than two million people died, while about four million were uprooted and some 600,000 people fled the country as refugees.
Now, both sides are accused of re-arming and positioning forces at likely flashpoint areas, either as a deterrent, in defence or preparation for conflict – including around the north-south border or in the three "transitional" areas of Abyei, Southern Kordofan and Southern Blue Nile.
"The situation is very complicated," a source at the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) in Malakal told IRIN. "The SPLA is building up arms and bringing in tanks. During the 24-25 February [Malakal] clash, the JIU too had tanks."
According to the NGO Small Arms Survey, the government of Southern Sudan continues to be driven by the belief that a confrontation with the north is likely, while internal conflicts have also flared up in recent months.
"This stance has shaped its current security strategy, which focuses on defending the border with the north and other strategic positions [and] containing potential spoilers, including possible allies of Khartoum," it said in a 14 May briefing paper.
Malakal is one example of where partial implementation of the deal has left a fragile security situation.
"Spoilers" include organised armed groups and political groupings in the south opposed to the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS). The “Other Armed Groups” were supposed to be mopped up in the CPA.
During the war these were funded and encouraged by the north to disrupt the SPLA, according to analysts. Since the peace accord, former commanders of these militia have been absorbed into the SAF or the SPLA.
Tensions, however, remain between the various units. The February Malakal clashes, for example, occurred after a former Southern Sudanese militia leader, who was opposed to the SPLA and is now SAF, Major General, Gabriel Tang-Ginya, arrived in Malakal.
Malakal, according to the 2005 agreement, is meant to be manned by the JIUs, so the presence of a SAF officer was a provocation, observers at UNMIS said. In any case, analysts say the SAF component of JIUs in the South are comprised mainly of southerners who used to be in Khartoum-backed militias.
Tensions rose, leading to an exchange of fire in which one civilian was killed and two SPLA soldiers injured. Asked to leave Malakal, Tang-Ginya refused, sparking off fighting that escalated to involve tanks.
At least 62 people, including 30 civilians, were killed before Southern Sudanese Vice-President Riek Machar flew in to restore order.
"We believe that Tang-Ginya is being used by SAF as a catalyst to start another civil war in Southern Sudan," the Southern Sudanese information and broadcasting ministry said in a statement after the clashes.
Malakal’s best-known political leader, former foreign minister Lam Akol, has meanwhile split from the ruling SPLM and announced the formation of a breakaway party.
The Enough Project, in a 1 July paper, noted that while no proof has been produced of Northern support to those involved in clashes in the south, it had a "history of using brutal tactics to sow chaos throughout Sudan’s vast periphery [including] employing proxy militias to incite violence at the local level, from Darfur to the Nuba Mountains".
Photo: Derk Segaar/IRIN
|At least 62 people died during fighting in Malakal in February, before Southern Sudanese Vice-President Riek Machar flew in to restore order|
This year, according to Oxfam, has so far been the most violent for Southern Sudan since the CPA. More than 1,000 people have reportedly been killed, largely in inter-communal clashes and at least 214,000 have fled their homes - more even than in Darfur this year.
The latest massacre, in which Murle are alleged to have killed Lou Nuer west of Akobo on 2 August, claimed the lives of up to 180 people, according to local officials.
Southern leaders have started to blame the north over related inter-communal clashes in Jonglei State, between the Murle and the Lou sub-section of the Nuer ethnic group.
"They [tensions and rivalries] emanate from a diabolical strategy aimed at projecting the people of Southern Sudan as a people who cannot govern themselves, particularly as we approach general elections and the referendum," Southern President Salva Kiir told the Southern parliament in Juba on 15 June.
The government in Khartoum denies these claims.
Aid workers say inter-communal violence and raids have added to the sense of precarious security and governance.
As southern clashes are turning increasingly lethal, it is partly due to the wide distribution of weapons among civilians.
Residents of Akobo in Jonglei, which hosts about 19,000 displaced people, say total disarmament would help reduce violence in the region. "Without a gun, you cannot easily kill," local trader Deng Gony said. "The solution is total disarmament."
Efforts to disarm fighters have been made, including partial disarmament by the southern government of mainly Nuer residents of Jonglei. This, however, left the Lou Nuer community exposed to attacks from the Murle and other communities. The result was that the disarmed community re-armed, observers said.
Lately, the UN has started backing a more comprehensive disarmament process, but analysts say there is a major challenge - the CPA has provisions for the disarmament and demobilization of armed groups, but provides little guidance on disarming civilians.
Elections and commitments
Most importantly perhaps for Southern Sudan are national elections in April 2010 and a referendum on self-determination in 2011. A spanner was thrown into the works recently when the GOSS rejected the results of the 2008 census.
Announced in May, the results showed that Southerners constitute 21 percent of Sudan's population. The South said its population was greater than that.
|It is increasingly evident that there is a widespread breaddown of peace in Southern Sudan, and that both the north and south are bracing for war in 2011, regardless of concurrent recommitments to implementation of the faltering [CPA]|
In Washington, Ambassador Richard Williamson told a Congressional hearing on 29 July: "The [CPA] was a monumental achievement toward beginning to overcome these religious, racial, ethnic and tribal divides. But the peace it brokered remains fragile, and the peace deal is neither simple nor neat.
"There still are legitimate and disturbing questions about Khartoum's commitment to full implementation of the CPA."
"It is increasingly evident that there is a widespread breakdown of peace in Southern Sudan, and that both the north and the south are bracing for war in 2011, regardless of concurrent recommitments to implementation of the faltering [CPA]," the Enough Project warned.
Recently, representatives of the two groups met in Washington and recommitted themselves to the agreement, but observers remain sceptical.
"If this agreement fails, there is a risk that all of Sudan will go to war again," Melanie Teff of Refugees International warned recently. "Every possible step must be taken to prevent a return to the horrors of the past."