JUBA, Sudan — The closer Sudan's big divide gets, the more and more precarious it appears.
With only one month to go until the new nation of South Sudan is born, events in wider Sudan seem to be careening further and further out of control, as border violence escalates and tensions mount.
Since the south's overwhelming vote for independence in January, tensions have risen steadily between Sudan's Arab northern and African southern governments. In the past few weeks, that friction has erupted into a wave of violence that threatens the peaceful gains years of international diplomacy.
"The escalating violence around the north-south border brings the two sides closer to war than they have been in years," said Jon Temin, Sudan program director at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
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The latest series of clashes began in earnest on May 21, when northern Sudan forces invaded and captured the southern-held disputed border district Abyei. The northern government has refused to withdraw from the area, despite international condemnation.
Then, the northern government issued a June 1 ultimatum for all forces previously aligned to the southern military in two key northern border states, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, to withdraw south of its border. Nearly all of these forces were African northerners who fought as part of the southern rebel force to create a united, democratic Sudan, but are now caught between the seceding south and the despotic north.
This ultimatum passed without resolution, and, on June 5, clashes began in Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan, and spread throughout the Nuba Mountains area, which during the war was subjected to Darfur-like ethnic warfare. The clashes began when the northern army began to forcibly disarm Nuba soldiers who previously allied with the southern rebels.
According to an eyewitness, heavy northern machinery — tanks, machine gun-mounted trucks, rocket-propelled grenades_ clashed in the Kadugli streets with the Nuba fighters, who eventually had to flee the city.
The conflict has since spread across the Nuba Mountains.
"The security situation in Kadugli and its surroundings remains volatile and tense," said Kouider Zerrouk, the acting spokesman for the United Nations mission in Sudan. Heavy artillery was heard in Kadugli vicinity Thursday and Friday, he said, and aerial bombing struck a number of Nuba areas Thursday.
The fighting followed weeks of rising political temperatures in the central highlands flashpoint, after the opposition Nuba-backed political party refused to accept state election results which declared Ahmed Haroun — indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur — as gubernatorial winner by a slim margin over former rebel leader Abdulaziz al Hilu.
In a rare foreign media visit to the Nuba Mountains by McClatchy in April, al Hilu said that President Omar al Bashir's party would never relinquish control over the state, and warned Haroun had plans to "repeat the same attempts of genocide, of extermination of the people" as he allegedly committed in Darfur.
Al Hilu and much of the Nuba find themselves in a difficult squeeze. They fought within the southern rebel group that now holds power in south Sudan, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, during Sudan's 21-year civil war that ended in 2005. But their homeland is undisputedly in northern territory.
Technically, the concerns of the Nuba rebels were supposed to be addressed in the 2005 U.S.-backed peace accord, which ended the war and promised elections to be followed by a state legislature-led negotiation process with the national government. But after their May election defeat, and with their friends in the south choosing to secede, al Hilu and the Nuba are now left holding what they now consider an empty document.
All this is only raising the stakes for Sudan's epic split in July.
South Sudan's leaders are likely to resist retaliating against northern provocations until at least July 9, when the world is set to recognize the Republic of South Sudan as the world's newest nation.
This strategy also has required the south's military to distance itself from the actions of its former Nuba soldiers — whom it says have deserted and are no longer under command — to avoid giving the north a pretext to declare war on the south.
On Thursday, however, northern planes bombed the southern military base of Jau on the border between South Kordofan and South Sudan's Unity state. Most of the Nuba fighters still in the southern army were based there, though most are believed to have deserted. The bombs also hit an adjacent southern village, killing five civilians, according to local authorities. More bombings were reported on Friday.
After July 9, says Temin, the south may decide to launch a counter-attack on Abyei. Or, he says, the conflicts in Abyei and South Kordofan could soon merge and expand as part of a wider border war.
"Ultimately, much depends on the north's end game — whether their intent is to secure only what they consider to be their own territory, to try to push the border further south into some of the nearby (southern) oil fields, or if they are primarily maneuvering for negotiating advantages," Temin said.
The U.S. is urging the two sides to not trample the grueling, years-long peace process.
"The situation is grave, but it is not hopeless," said Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who's active in Sudan diplomacy in a statement Friday. "Both sides can re-engage in the month before separation to fulfill the promise of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement."
Nonetheless, the violence compounds the troubles for a land of already battling deep war-inflicted poverty, where inhabitants live in mud huts and survive on subsistence farming.
According to the U.N., 100,000 southerners are displaced from the fighting in Abyei. An internal U.N. human rights assessment report dated May 29, obtained by McClatchy, described the north's actions there — burning and looting homes to drive out a single ethnic group — as "tantamount to ethnic cleansing."
In South Kordofan's Kadugli, up to 40,000 people — or more than half its residents — have fled, according to the U.N. Around 7,000 people have sought refuge outside the U.N. compound on the outskirts of town. Other major towns are also reported to be deserted.
"The Sudanese government must urgently put a stop to these indiscriminate attacks, and in particular must stop the bombing of areas populated by civilians and allow humanitarian agencies access to deliver assistance to the civilian population," said Erwin van der Borght, Africa program director for Amnesty International.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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