Along tense Sudan border, UN military observers see less cooperation before independence vote

WONTHAU, Sudan (AP) — Vehicles flying blue U.N. flags drove to the line dividing north and south Sudan, and the visiting peacekeepers found old enemies facing each other over a narrow ground with a threat of war in the wind.

Days before President Barack Obama prepared to meet in New York on Friday with senior officials from north and south Sudan to prevent a conflict from reigniting, U.N. peacekeepers accompanied by an Associated Press reporter and photographer drove to the border in two white SUVs. Even before the mission started, it became crippled by deep suspicions, underscoring the challenges both sides face in overcoming suspicions and ancient animosities.

The northern and southern military forces were at each others' throats for more than 20 years and if the south's independence referendum is not held as called for in the 2005 peace accord, war could resume. Even if the vote is held, the north might not permit the south to secede.

As a U.N. monitoring mission set off last week accompanied by The Associated Press, things were already turning sour.

The south's army representative refused to come, which led the north's monitor to also pull out. Without them, the U.N. observers couldn't visit military installations along the dividing line during their 2½-day trip, effectively keeping the world body in the dark about any military escalations possibly taking place.

The U.N. does not conduct regular patrols in the north's White Nile state directly across the future border from the south's Upper Nile state because it doesn't have a mandate to be there. Consequently, the south's Sudan People's Liberation Army is reluctant to allow monitors accompanied by a northern army officer to review its own weapons caches.

The Obama administration says the south will doubtless vote for independence in the Jan. 9 vote. Officials here in Upper Nile state suspect the Khartoum-based northern government may not accept such an outcome. This oil-rich area is the south's northernmost point, and if conflict returns it would be on the front lines.

The U.N. military observers — a Peruvian marine, a Filipino captain, a Norwegian reservist, and an officer from Fiji — rolled in to Wonthau, a small settlement of mud huts and the final one on the southern side of the border.

Southern army soldiers in ragged uniforms and flip flops were staying with their families. Across the border and less than 100 yards (meters) away was a northern Sudanese army camp. Many of the thatched roofs in Wonthau were crowned by wooden crosses, indicating the residents are mostly Christians and likely also animist. Those in the north are mostly Muslims.

The peacekeepers smiled and greeted the southern soldiers. Without monitors from the northern and southern armies present, the visit became a series of courtesy calls to government officials. The observers, who come to the border only once a month, were told that one top official was not around, so they spoke to his deputy, a 26-year-old.

"We are confident that there will be no problems, and that there will be good relations and coexistence between us," Samia Ajang told the observers.

With signs of military buildup on the southern side of the future border and northern troops in full view, the observers seemed skeptical. Their visit complete, they drove back south with virtually no new information about border threats. It's obvious that the better equipped northern forces could quickly penetrate the border and roll tanks down the paved road and into the nearby town of Renk.

In that town, a local official predicted trouble unless the north abides by the peace agreement.

"If the north refuses the outcome of the referendum then there will be problems," Renk County commissioner Deng Akwei said solemnly. "If fighting begins, it will be on the border and it will continue from there."

Nearly all the Southern Sudan officials the peacekeepers spoke with thanked them for visiting and asked them to establish a permanent presence in this area.

"If we had monitors there along the border, the north would think twice (about attacking)," said Gatluak Deng, a former governor of Upper Nile state.

But the U.N. mission that oversees a $1 billion-a-year, 10,000-person-strong peacekeeping effort is thinly stretched in Southern Sudan, which is the size of Texas.

The International Crisis Group this month warned that most of the north-south border remains undefined, contributing to "heightened anxiety."

Furthermore, the proximity of northern and southern forces "presents a considerable risk of unintended conflict," an ICG report said.

"A single hostile incident could inadvertently ignite much broader conflict, particularly in the period around the self-determination referendum, when emotions will be running high," the Brussels-based think tank said.