Abyei Update: Continued Military Advance by Khartoum’s Forces, Increasing Risk of Major Confrontation

Eric Reeves
March 23, 2011

Though the possibility of a large-scale offensive military action by Khartoum remains dangerously high, the most recent intel from the Satellite Sentinel Project (March 23, 2011) suggests another disturbing possibility: a slow-moving military takeover of Abyei, pushing incrementally southward from present positions, some of which are revealed in today’s satellite imagery as new or newly expanded (http://goo.gl/PnagL ). At the same time, very substantial numbers of troops and arms remain in South Kordofan (for an excellent account of the regime’s ominously large military resources close to Abyei, see the March 2011 update from Small Arms Survey, “Armed Entities in South Kordofan,” http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/facts-figures.php ).

The title of the new report from SSP gives a sense of what has been most recently discovered: “Satellite Images Reveal Movement of More Forces Backed by Government of Sudan into Contested Abyei Region.” Near the village of Goli (also Golae) on the Abyei/Diffra road, there is a significant new military encampment, not previously seen. The previously identified military encampment at Bongo has been increased by 25 percent, perhaps sufficient to house a battalion-sized unit. Bongo is only 15 miles NNW of Abyei town. There are also new photographs of Khartoum’s military forces in Diffra. (For a scalable and highly detailed map of Abyei, see http://avidpdf.com/ebook/agany-pdf.html .)

Given the current extremely tense relations between the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime in Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Juba, this is the worst moment to be heightening military tensions. Yet this is precisely what the NIF/NCP leadership has done:

“‘Satellite imagery confirms reports of the deployment of large numbers of northern forces as well as newly fortified encampments. This should be sounding alarms about the human security of all civilians in Abyei,’ said Dr. Charlie Clements, Director of Human Rights Documentation of the Satellite Sentinel Project, and Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School.”

We should be alarmed as well by the pretext for renewed war in Abyei that Khartoum put forward 10 days ago:

“Al-Dirdiri Mohammed Ahmed, the National Congress Party's chief negotiator on Abyei, warned of ‘a lot of skirmishes’ unless the southern army withdraws thousands of ‘irregular’ troops from the volatile district by Monday [March 14, 2011].” (Agence France-Presse, Radio Netherlands)

“‘If the SPLA is not going to withdraw the police ... the situation in Abyei might deteriorate, and could prove to be very serious within the coming few days,’ [Dirdiri] said.”

What we are seeing now are preparations for creating precisely the “serious” and “deteriorating” situation Dirdiri speaks of; and what he refers to as “a lot of skirmishes” will not be localized and confinable fighting but the inevitable prelude to relentless military encroachment by the regime’s forces and militia allies, perhaps leading to large-scale combat, with the likelihood of a resumption of war greatly increased.

The view from Abyei’s Ngok Dinka population confirms a slowly whelming offensive that will be irresistible, but perhaps accomplished incrementally rather than by large offensive maneuvers—though such are still a clear possibility if the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) decides to halt the continuing encroachment on territory defined by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (July 2009). Associated Press reports today:

“The top government official in the one region most likely to send north and south Sudan back toward conflict said Wednesday he believes the northern government is massing military forces outside Abyei in order to occupy the town and claim it permanently. [ ] ‘Of course the Misseriya are being instigated by the (north's) National Congress Party,’ said Deng Arop Kuol, the chief administrator in Abyei. ‘The military build up ... has no other explanation other than occupying Abyei.’” (dateline: Juba, March 23, 2011)

Compounding military tensions is the report of yet more Antonov bombing attacks on Southern territory, specifically Raja County in Western Bahr el-Ghazal ( see http://goo.gl/mPnsZ ). In the recent past, Khartoum has either dismissed such attacks as “accidents” or denied them altogether (even when confirmed by UN investigators and on-site journalists). On this occasion there can be no mistaking the regime’s intent: it is signaling that it has a substantial military air force that it is prepared to use, including:

20 MiG-29s, a highly advanced Russian-built fighter aircraft
11 Su-25 ground attack aircraft, acquired 2007–08 from Belarus•
12 - 20 Fantan (A-5) ground attack aircraft, acquired 2002 from China•
44 Combat helicopters (armed Mi-17 or Mi-24), acquired from Russia•
•(Source: Small Arms Survey, Report No. 15, December 2009)

Additional acquisitions have likely been made over the past year and a half. Khartoum is making clear that if the SPLA resists the slow move southward by the SAF and its militia forces, then it will set in motion conflict in which overwhelming force will be brought to bear, including all available military aircraft.

The simple truth, however, is that the SPLM will not and cannot allow Abyei to be usurped militarily. This should have been abundantly clear to US special envoy Scott Gration and President Obama’s clumsy intermediary Senator John Kerry (the latter dismissed concerns over a further divided Abyei as a trivial dispute over a “few hundred square miles”). Instead, Khartoum was given the signal that more could be extracted—on Abyei and other issues; and now the regime is acting on that signal, and the misplaced evenhandedness which blames Juba as much as Khartoum for this escalating crisis. A major escalation of violence in the region, which will likely precipitate much wider fighting—perhaps all-out war—would then be the final legacy of General Gration’s two-year tenure as President Obama’s special envoy for Sudan.

March 23, 2011