The United Nations will move peacekeeping troops in Southern Sudan to the region’s northern border to deter violence stemming from a referendum that might split the country, a senior UN official said.
UN troops will move within weeks to “hot spots” along the border, Alain LeRoy, head of UN peacekeeping, said in an interview after briefing the Security Council on the plan. He said the UN lacks the troop strength to create a full “buffer zone” along the 1,200-mile border, as Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir has requested.
“We will increase our presence but only in some hotspots,” LeRoy said. “We have already some teams sited along the boundary.” He said creation of a buffer zone such as Kiir proposed was unrealistic because “we have limited capacity.”
Oil-rich Southern Sudan is scheduled to vote Jan. 9 on whether to secede from Sudan. The region pumps most of Sudan’s crude, which at 490,000 barrels a day makes the nation the third-largest producer in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.
Talks on the referendum broke down earlier this week when the parties disagreed about voter registration issues. Under a 2005 peace agreement, Abyei is scheduled to hold the referendum to determine whether it will be administered by the government in Khartoum or the Southern Sudan seat of power in Juba.
Next year’s vote is a key component of the 2005 agreement that ended a two-decades-long civil war between Sudan’s Muslim north and the south, where Christianity and traditional beliefs, largely animism, dominate. About 2 million people died in the conflict, and more than 4 million were displaced.
Voter registration was scheduled to begin in November. After talks broke down, the State Department announced that Ambassador Princeton Lyman would travel to Khartoum and Juba to engage both parties on referendum issues.
“The parties must reach consensus if the referendum is to take place as scheduled,” said State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said today. “Is this going to be an enormous challenge?” Crowley said. “Yes.”
LeRoy said he couldn’t specify how many troops would be moved to the border because the redeployment was still being planned. The UN has 10,600 soldiers and civilian police in Southern Sudan to monitor the 2005 peace agreement.
Fears of New Conflict
During the Security Council’s recent trip to Sudan, Kiir “warned that he fears the north may be preparing for war and may be moving troops southwards,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told the Security Council. “He stated that the south proposes a UN-administered buffer zone, spanning 10 miles to the north and south of the border, in which no troops would be present.”
The UN envoy representing the government in Khartoum rejected the idea of a buffer zone and said any troop movements in the region were part of a normal rotation.
“We are one country, so this is too early to speak about,” Ambassador Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman said in an interview. “We don’t think there is a need for forces to be positioned on the border. The picture should not be depicted as if there is tension or war. Relations are civil.”
Rice said there was little support in the Security Council for creation of a buffer zone.
“I think most council members are skeptical, to say the least, of the feasibility of a force that could line the entirety of the border,” she said. “The troops don’t exist; it couldn’t be constituted quickly enough. But there is serious discussion of alternative models that might focus on those areas along the border that are most vulnerable or at high risk of violence and where civilians may be most at risk.”