Impoverished tribes in war torn Darfur, the scene of decades of misery and genocide, now have one of the oldest reasons for fighting known to man: gold.
More than 800 people have been killed and 150,000 displaced since January as poor, but heavily armed tribes fight over the Jebel Amer gold mining region. That is more than double the number of people killed in political and ethnic fighting in 2012, and world leaders fear the mad dash for precious metal could be plunging the region into a new era of violence. Humanitarian groups say the Sudanese government, led by accused war criminal President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, is pitting tribes against each other in a bid to get the most possible out of some 4,000 mines.
"Ten years after the genocide began, state-sponsored violence has once more taken hold of the region," said Akshaya Kumar, a policy analyst for the Enough Project, a Washington-based humanitarian organization. "Cash-strapped and dollar-starved, Sudan sees gold as its new oil. The recent gold discoveries are fueling atrocities again in Darfur."
When South Sudan split from Sudan two years ago, it took with it much of the nation's oil wealth. With shrinking oil revenues, al-Bashir is seeking to increase the $2.2 billion worth of gold produced by the mines annually. And his strategy to keep control of the vast region's gold, amid hundreds of thousands of amateurs in a virtual free-for-all, relies on fighters battle-hardened from decades of ethnic and religious war.
"Most of the gold from Darfur has been produced by unlicensed, artisanal mines, which are difficult for Khartoum to tax," explained Kumar. "This helps explain the government's drive to consolidate control over the mines."
Al-Bashir's government in Khartoum has especially relied on the Arab Rizeigat tribe to enforce its control of the mines in the nation's western desert mountains. The Rizeigat were Khartoum's key allies during the 1983-2005 civil war with the south, and have been implicated in genocide.
"The Sudanese government asserts that Darfur is beset by 'inter-tribal' tensions that inevitably result in violence," wrote Omer Ismail, a Sudanese activist on Darfur in a report to the Enough Project. "However, the evidence shows that Khartoum systematically spurs these clashes by sponsoring militias and taking sides."
The danger is not only from rival factions. The mines themselves are generally unsafe. Earlier this year, more than 100 miners and would-be rescuers were killed in a collapse.
Apart from the mines, which burrow miles down below the dunes around Darfur, the government has encouraged the region’s people to become prospectors and now approximately half-a-million people roam Darfur with pans, metal detectors and digging equipment. The rush has made Sudan Africa’s third-largest gold producer - and a place that remains dangerous even after much of the political fighting had ended. But such freelance mining is allowing much of the resource to be harvested and smuggled out of the country, unclaimed and untaxed by the government.
Until the government can restore order, and without the efforts of lawless tribes, the killing is likely to continue.
"I find it disturbing that significantly more people were displaced by clashes in the first three months of this year than during all of 2012," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in an April report.
Such pressure from the UN could affect al-Bashir's actions. Mark Schroeder, vice president of geopolitical research group Stratfor’s Africa Analysis, told FoxNews.com that in the end, Khartoum's desperation for gold -- and the cash it brings -- may not be enough to withstand global pressure to prevent the nation from descending into another era of killing.
“That could sustain the militias’ viability, but the central government is facing pressure to show that they can make good on moving forward,” he said.