SHOUTING into his field radio, Sudanese rebel Cmdr. Obudo Mamur Mete orders his men to open fire. Rockets, shells, and heavy machine-gun rounds blast into the trenches of troops of Sudan's Islamic regime, situated around the abandoned Aswa hospital.
Government forces return fire and T-55 tanks directly shell this reporter's observation post. Two Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers and a British journalist, James Schofield of the Australian Broadcasting Corp., are wounded by shrapnel.
For Commander Mamur, of the mostly Christian SPLA, it is just another day of war: ``This is routine to us here,'' he says. ``What is happening here is also happening all over the south.''
Sudan's 11-year civil war is both a religious and ethnic conflict: It pits Arab Islamic fundamentalists against Christian and animist black Africans. And it's cranking up a notch as both sides draw in neighboring countries to gain military advantage.
The rebels want to prevent the Arab-led government in Khartoum from imposing Islam on the Christian and animist south. For two years, Khartoum's self-described holy war has pushed closer than ever to Sudan's southern edges. Taking advantage of debilitating rebel infighting, government troops have squeezed the SPLA into their most difficult military position since the war began.
Help from Uganda
The fear that the government is close to victory - and is intent on spreading fundamentalist Islam - seems to have sparked increased support for the SPLA. Despite the territorial losses, the rebels are now as confident as ever, if not of victory, then at least that they will not be defeated.
Buoyed by military assistance from Uganda - which considers the rebels a bulwark against the destabilizing Islamic influence of Khartoum - and the fizzling-out of fighting among rebel factions, there is hope on this side of the front line.
``We are now in a better position than ever before,'' said Kuol Manyang, the SPLA commander for this region. ``The SPLA has already regrouped and reorganized. We are convinced that the government will not accept any other means than war.''
The front sits just nine miles north of the strategic Sudanese town of Nimule on the Uganda border, straddling what used to be the teeming Aswa camp for 30,000 southerners displaced by the war.
A unilateral government cease-fire was broken as soon as it was agreed on last July, when three days of constant government artillery and air bombardment on Aswa and Nimule brought Khartoum's troops to this river. There, they were stalled by the destruction of a bridge and lack of reinforcements, the rebels say.
Peace talks broke down last month yet again, as both sides probed for military advantage on the battlefield. The war in Africa's largest country, which has left an estimated 1 million Sudanese dead and 3 million more displaced or as refugees, seems set to continue.
``The government forces are preparing now to move on Nimule, and they are determined to come,'' says Commander Manyang, one of the closest advisors of SPLA leader Col. John Garang. ``They are talking peace while they are preparing for war. If they defeat the SPLA, the war will not end here.''
This analysis is shared by Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, according to the SPLA, relief workers, and other close observers. Part of the new SPLA confidence, they say, stems from the increased interest of Uganda because of Khartoum's alleged support of a shadowy militia called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), operating in Northern Uganda.
This group has disrupted supply routes to southern Sudan.
Two months ago, Mr. Museveni accused Khartoum of supporting the LRA, and expelled Sudanese government military monitors who patrolled the border.
Uganda has quietly supported the SPLA for years, and now that Museveni's obligations to the Rwanda Patriotic Front rebels are over with the RPF's accession to power in Kigali, he's turning his attention to Sudan.
``This has become Museveni's war as much as the SPLA's war,'' says one source close to the Ugandan president. ``If the government of Sudan comes to Nimule, they will pour stuff into Uganda.''
In the end, the advantage comes down to fresh weaponry, the source said. ``Everything has come in the last three months, and it's all hardware.''
Sudan on US list
The United States has also shown a marked political interest in the small details of Sudan's once-forgotten civil war, sparking some analysts to believe that indirect US support for the SPLA may be being funneled through Uganda.
Sudan is still on the US State Department's list of terrorist states, and US interest in stemming the spread of Sudan's militant Islam is well known.
The West has kept Sudan at arm's length because of charges that it supports militant movements seeking to topple governments in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt.
This year for the first time, relief workers say, the US government has given $11 million cash to the agency Norwegian People's Aid, which is a well-known supporter of the SPLA.
Khartoum has also sought to step up its regionalization of the war. Zaire and the Central African Republic are allowing the Sudan government to mass its troops in their countries, say relief workers and church officials. This deal was arranged, they assert, through French mediation efforts made in exchange for the recent handover to France by Sudan of wanted terrorist ``Carlos the Jackal.''