The United Nations is preparing for the possibility of 2.8 million people being displaced if fighting breaks out over southern Sudan’s independence referendum, according to an internal report.
Just over two weeks remain before voters in the south decide whether to remain with the Khartoum-based north or – more likely – to secede and create the world’s newest country.
Tensions are high over the vote. Aircraft from the northern Sudanese military have bombed areas in the south or near disputed north-south borders in recent weeks.
The UN report, obtained by The Associated Press, said both the northern and southern militaries had been rearming and that many southerners possessed guns and light weapons.
Both militaries have reinforced their positions along the border in recent months, hindering aid work, the report said. If either the north or the south does not accept the results of the January 9 referendum, the result could be a “war-like” situation, it said.
“A deterioration of the north-south relationship, as well as tensions within northern and southern Sudan could lead to large-scale outflow of people to neighbouring countries,” said the UN’s humanitarian contingency plan, stamped “Not for wider distribution”.
Underscoring the precarious security situation, southern military spokesman Col Philip Aguer said 20 troops were killed and 50 wounded in an attack on Saturday by forces loyal to a renegade army commander in the remote and militarised state of Jonglei.
Col Aguer said the attack was a surprise because amnesty discussions between the south and commander George Athor were under way.
The south’s president offered Athor and other dissident military figures amnesty in September in an effort to promote southern unity ahead of the January vote.
The north and south ended a 20-year-plus civil war with the signing of a 2005 peace accord that also guaranteed the south the right to hold an independence referendum. Some two million people died in the war, which left southerners scarred and suspicious of Khartoum’s Muslim Arab rulers.
In Sudan’s capital Khartoum, the leaders of Egypt and Libya met Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and southern Sudanese president Salva Kiir to discuss the future of Sudan after the vote.
If worst-case violence scenarios play out after January, the UN plan anticipates an estimated 2.8 million internally displaced people within Sudan and an additional 3.2 million people who may be affected by a breakdown in trade and social services.
The hardest hit populations would be those living along Sudan’s disputed and militarised 1,300-mile north-south border, as well as an estimated 800,000 southerners living in and around Khartoum who would “flee or (be) forced to move to southern Sudan as a result of violence and insecurity”.
Egypt said yesterday’s Khartoum talks were designed to ensure that the referendum is held in a “climate of freedom, transparency and credibility” and that the four leaders would review outstanding issues between the north and south such as the demarcation of the border and the future of the oil-rich border area of Abyei.
Both Libya and Egypt view Sudan as their strategic back yard and would want to see the break-up of their southern neighbour be peaceful and avoid any massive flow of refugees into their territory as a result of fighting.