Mutiny kills at least 50 in strategic border area of South Sudan

The death toll given Sunday by Sudan's military is more than double that of initial reports of clashes that started Thursday when former militiamen now serving in the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) refused to turn in their heavy weaponry.

Fighting in an apparent mutiny has killed at least 50 people in a strategic area of South Sudan, according to a statement from Sudan's military on Sunday.

The death toll is more than double that of initial reports of clashes that started Thursday when former militiamen now serving in the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) refused to turn in their heavy weaponry.

Northern Sudanese (SAF) troops stationed in the South as part of "joint, integrated units" (JIUs) formed to keep the fragile 2005 North-South peace deal alive are heading back home as semiautonomous South Sudan gears up to officially secede from the North in July following its 99 percent vote for independence last month. But many of the former militiamen, whose roots are in the south, have refused to redeploy or give up their weapons.

Any violence in the South in the run-up to the region’s independence declaration in July is dangerous. But the convoluted dynamics of these clashes illustrate just how difficult preserving the peace will be for the southern government before and after July. What’s more, the current fighting demonstrates that, quite literally, breaking up Sudan is hard to do.

Upper Nile: Key state with a history of clashes

The fighting has shifted in the past two days from Makalal, the capital of South Sudan's Upper Nile state, north to the towns of Melut and Paloich, the latter area being ground zero for oil extraction in the most productive of all of Sudan’s oil fields.

The border region is no stranger to territorial clashes.

Deadly battles broke out in Malakal both 2006 and 2008 between the northern and southern armies that are stationed in the town as supposedly joint, integrated forces. But the “JIUs” – stationed across the south – have generally been one of the resounding failures of the 2005 North-South peace deal.

Instead of training together in preparation to become Sudan’s future army if the south had not opted for secession, the JIUs have clashed several times since 2005, causing tens of thousands of people to flee the border hotspot of Abyei in 2008 and killing scores in the same year in Malakal.

This time, however, the JIUs are not fighting each other in Malakal. Instead, opposing, mainly South Sudanese factions within the northern Sudanese army (the SAF) traded bursts of heavy artillery fire and fired tank rounds against other on the northern side of Malakal beginning on Thursday evening.

Why the mutiny?

The former militiamen who led the mutiny are suspected to have done so because they are uncertain about their ability to integrate into a newly independent South after spending years taking up arms against their fellow southerners in exchange for pay and favors from the Arab-backed government in Khartoum.

The commander of this militia, Gabriel Tanginye, arguably left these men out in the cold just weeks ago when he decided to leave his position as a high-ranking officer in the SAF in order to reintegrate into the Southern army before last month’s independence vote for the South.

Since Mr. Tanginye’s move, elements within the SAF unit in Malakal have reportedly been restive. And now, they've taken up arms.

It's just one of a number of complicated factors that could lead to instability as the world's newest nation nears birth.

How will the armed forces of a soon-to-be independent south handle the situation? And how will President Omar al-Bashir's government in Khartoum react to the mutiny?

Stay tuned.

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