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South Sudan to Launch Civilian Disarmament Campaign

The government of Southern Sudan is planning an ambitious campaign to disarm hundreds of civilians in the semi-autonomous region. Tribal clashes in parts of southern Sudan have killed as many as 1,000 people this year, a development that could threaten the fragile peace with the north.

Southern Sudan has long suffered from clashes between tribal groups over cattle and land. But according to the president of the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, the violence this year has been abnormally high. As many as 1,000 people have been killed since the start of the year in clashes between members of various tribes.

At an event marking the anniversary of the creation of the Sudan People's Liberation Army - the rebel group whose members now run the southern government - Mr. Kiir said the violence threatens the fragile 2005 peace agreement between north and south Sudan and he announced a campaign to disarm civilians throughout the southern region.

Such a campaign would need to target hundreds of thousands of people. Southern Sudanese officials have estimated that there are about two million small arms in the region. Previous disarmament efforts have seen clashes between soldiers and tribal groups reluctant to give up their weapons.

The minister for presidential affairs in the Government of Southern Sudan, Luka Biong, says an individual plan will be drawn up for each of the 10 southern states, in cooperation with the state governor and tribal chiefs, in an attempt to avoid such problems.

"That's why the chiefs are so important, for them to be aware and to be part of it. Then you reduce SPLA being received wrongly," said Biong. "And I think also for the communities to know that this disarmament is for their benefit and the benefit of everybody."

At a recent conference in Jonglei state, the site of some of the worst recent tribal violence, local leaders noted the 2005 north-south peace agreement may have exacerbated tribal tensions. Peace has brought higher numbers of cows and other forms of wealth, which have invited tribal raids. And the establishment of the southern government has created competition for positions between tribes.

There are also worries that clashes will continue to get worse with the approach of national elections, scheduled for next year, and a referendum on southern secession in 2011.

In his speech, Mr. Kiir said the clashes had been exacerbated by "enemies of peace" who want to show that southern Sudan is incapable of governing itself or providing its own security. He did not refer to any particular groups, but said there were threats from both the inside and outside the south.

Disarmament could be most complicated along the disputed north-south border. The area has seen frequent clashes between semi-nomadic Arab tribesman, who have sided with the north in previous conflicts, and communities sympathetic to the south.

Biong said it could create problems if Arab civilians are not disarmed alongside the southerners.

"While the south is embarking on disarmament, these Arab nomads are being given armaments," added Biong. "If southern Sudan is disarming their people then you have the Arab nomads coming with their rifles and you arrive at the need of coordinating these activities."

Biong notes a similar concern exists along Sudan's borders with Kenya and Uganda, where members of tribes in the neighboring countries could take advantage of the disarmed Sudanese to launch cattle raids. Biong said the disarmament plan will be coordinated with regional leaders.

The disarmament campaign is separate from existing efforts to disarm and demobilize members of the Sudan People's Liberation Army as it transitions from a rebel force to a conventional army.