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Sudan arms buildup heightens oil war fears

JUBA, Sudan, April 13 (UPI) -- The Khartoum government and former rebels in the newly independent south are beefing up their military forces along the still-to-be-defined border in Sudan, heightening fears of a new war over oil that could destabilize northeast Africa.

Imagery from civilian satellites show the buildups are most concentrated around the flashpoint Abyei region, the most disputed of the oil-producing zones and the scene of constant skirmishing in recent weeks.

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Fighting has escalated between ethnic southern and northern tribes in the area, which international observers say appears to have been fanned by the Khartoum regime in a bid to seize the territory.

If serious fighting erupts, the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended more than two decades of north-south civil war could be shattered, threatening the formal independence of the south scheduled for July 9.

In a January referendum, the people of the Christian and animist south voted overwhelmingly in favor of secession from the Arab dominated north.

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But the vital issue of how Sudan's oil resources, essential to both sides, is to be divided remains unresolved, with no indication that an agreement is likely any time soon. The south stormed out of negotiations March 12.

Most of the oil producing zones lie in the south or in the border states of Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei.

The way things stand now, when July comes around, the south, governed by the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement, will take control of some three-quarters of Sudan's current oil output of 500,000 barrels per day.

That will be a severe blow to the Khartoum regime of President Omar al-Bashir and his ruling National Congress Party, which depends on the oil revenue it has been making.

The oil is pumped mainly by the China National Petroleum Corp., Malaysia's Petroliam Nasional and India's Oil & Natural Gas Corp. Sudan has proven reserves of 5 billion barrels of oil.

Tension has been mounting steadily and relentlessly in recent weeks, amid deep disagreement between Khartoum and the southern capital, Juba, and the failure of both sides to resolve a plethora of key issues, such as revenue-sharing, border demarcation and the national debt.

The SPLM claims the north is waging a systematic campaign of destabilization, allegations supported in large part by outside observers.

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"Now that South Sudan's self-determination has been realized, long-suppressed and simmering political disputes have resurfaced, threatening instability on the eve of independence," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group observed April 4.

Both sides are also plagued by internal divisions, exacerbating the problems that increasingly appear to make a peaceful separation impossible.

Bashir is grappling with political rivals in the north who opposed partition, as well as the prospect of an economic downturn following the south's independence.

The southern leader, Salva Kiir, is struggling with deep-rooted, long-running tribal rivalries that are becoming more pronounced now that secession has been achieved.

Northern support for renegade southern militias that are continually clashing with Kiir's forces, particularly in the oil-producing zones, has complicated efforts to achieve stability. This is a tactic Khartoum used during the civil war.

Paramount among these difficulties is the fate of Abyei. It had been scheduled to hold its own mini-referendum on its future status during the wider referendum on secession in January.

But that was scrapped because north and south could not agree on who was eligible to vote.

Observers say the Abyei crisis worsens daily. Tribes aligned with north and south are at each other's throats over water rights or cattle rustling.

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Thousands of people fled Abyei in March because of fighting that killed dozens of civilians.

The Satellite Sentinel Project set up by movie star George Clooney, a Sudan activist, has provided imagery that shows Khartoum has moved Soviet-built T-55 tanks, other armored vehicles and support vehicles for armored deployments at Muglad, close to Abyei's northern boundary.

Two Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships have also been deployed. There have been reports of overflights by Sudanese air force combat jets in recent weeks as well.

Southern forces have also been beefed up, but they lack Khartoum's firepower.

"The introduction of heavy air and ground attack capacity by the Sudanese Armed Forces represents a significant buildup of firepower in a tense region," observed John C. Bradshaw of the satellite project.

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