At least 50,000 people have been

forced to flee their homes in southern Sudan because of

militia attacks and fighting between Sudanese government

and rebel forces, the United Nations said.

The clashes over the past few weeks have occurred despite

an October 2002 cease-fire between the government and the

Sudan People's Liberation Army and despite a nearly

two-year peace process aimed at ending the 21-year-old

civil war.

Since early March, the United Nations has received reports

of villages, schools and health clinic being destroyed and

looted, as well as incidents of rape in Shilluk Kingdom, in

the northern Upper Nile region, the U.N. Humanitarian

Coordinator for Sudan said in a statement Sunday.

Most of the attacks have been carried out by militia

opposing the rebels, said Ben Parker, a U.N. spokesman.

"The most serious fighting that has affected civilians

have been from militia targeting civilian settlements,"

Parker said by telephone from Sudan. "Fighting between

government troops and SPLA is a much smaller element in the

conflict as far as we know."

U.N. agencies and aid groups have been forced to suspend

operations in the area because of the violence.

Yasir Arman, a spokesman for the Sudan People's Liberation

Army, accused the militia of carrying out the attacks with

government support.

He said the area is a stronghold of an allied rebel group,

which joined the Sudan People's Liberation Army after its

leader, Lam Akol, defected from the government.

Ad' Dirdeiry M. Hamed, Sudan's deputy ambassador to Kenya,

said no government troops were involved in the fighting. He

said the clashes pitted rival groups of a southern faction

against each other.

Sudan's civil war erupted in 1983 when rebels from the

mainly animist and Christian south took up arms against the

predominantly Muslim and Arab north.

More than 2 million people have perished in Africa's

longest-running conflict , mainly through war-induced

famine, but fighting has slowed since the warring parties

began peace talks in July 2002.

Negotiations, which are taking place in Kenya, are nearing

their conclusion but are currently deadlocked on key

outstanding issues.

These include whether Khartoum, the capital, should be

governed under Islamic law and the details of power-sharing

for two disputed areas in central Sudan.

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