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Satellite photos show Sudanese war crimes, watchdog claims

Despite the group's claims, however, it remains unclear whether a May 21 assault by northern Sudanese forces on the contested border zone of Abyei actually reached the level of crimes against humanity.

By Maggie FickCorrespondent / May 31, 2011

A patrol from the international peacekeeping operation passes a destroyed UN truck that was part of a convoy transporting northern soldiers out of the Abyei area in the Todach area, north of Abyei town, in Sudan, on May 30.

Stuart Price/UNMIS/Reuters

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Juba, South Sudan

An anti-genocide watchdog group says it has satellite-photo evidence of war crimes committed by the northern Sudanese army during its invasion on May 21 of the strategic, hotly contested border zone of Abyei, claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. But despite the group's claims, it remains unclear whether the assault, while violent, actually reached the level of crimes against humanity.

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"Consistent with [United Nations] reports of indiscriminate bombardment, displacing tens of thousands of civilians, followed by organized looting and burning in Abyei, these images provide supporting documentary evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Abyei," the Executive Director of the Washington-based advocacy group Enough Project, John C. Bradshaw, said in a statement.

The photos were captured by the Satellite Sentinel Project, an innovative attempt to provide real-time images of the remote and difficult-to-access Abyei region to concerned parties, be them policymakers, activists, or government officials. The project is supported by several parties, including the Enough Project, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and most famously, Hollywood star George Clooney.

Nathaniel Raymond, director of operations for the satellite project at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative at Harvard University, says that the evidence is "sufficient" to show that the northern military had violated the Geneva Conventions during their capture of Abyei town, the captial of the Abyei region.

"Abyei town itself is a crime scene, and the way we approach these images is [how] homicide detectives would approach a crime scene: to reconstruct what occurred or what is occurring," explained Mr. Raymond.

He told the Monitor in a phone interview from Cambridge, Mass. on Monday that the project is calling for the UN Security Council to review and expand its referral to the International Criminal Court on Sudan to include Abyei in addition to the western region of Darfur, where Sudanese government-sponsored killing has raged for years.

When the project was launched shortly after South Sudan's peaceful and credible independence vote in January, the Satellite Sentinel Project said it sought to keep a close eye – using satellites – on Abyei in order to deter either side from taking committing crimes out of view of the international community or even the rest of Sudan.

"We focused satellites on Abyei because everyone concerned believed that if the Sudan government would try to undermine the North-South peace, it would do so through Abyei," said Mr. Clooney in a recent statement.

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