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South Sudan's worst enemy: its own armed forces?

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Tim McKulka/United Nations Mission in Sudan(UNMIS)/Reuters/File

(Read caption) Senior military officers from both the northern army's Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the southern army's Sudan People's Liberation Armed Forces (SPLA) and the UNMIS Force attend a dissolution ceremony in Juba in this picture taken April 7. Aid groups in Southern Sudan say the SPLA is stealing aid, vehicles, and gas, as well as blockading access to regions in need of aid.

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With the soon-to-be-born nation of South Sudan facing numerous threats – from internal rebellions to violent clashes with northern Sudanese troops along their common border – it might not be surprising that aid workers are finding their area of operation shrinking rapidly. But one of the main reasons is not conflict, but harassment, aid workers say, by the South Sudanese forces themselves.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Army – a former guerrilla group that makes up the ruling party of South Sudan – has begun to prey on United Nations agencies and aid groups attempting to access needy and conflict-affected civilians.

In some cases, aid workers say privately, the SPLA is stealing humanitarian vehicles and supplies. In other instances, it is simply forbidding aid groups from traveling to the remote areas where the army is conducting its campaigns against various anti-government militias.

UN officials and aid groups are reluctant to comment on the record about the grievous impacts of these campaigns, for fear of losing whatever access they currently have to vulnerable groups, many of whom have been caught up in the crossfire of the ongoing army-rebel violence.

But a recent report by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Southern Sudan features shocking details about the harassment of aid groups in 2011 to date by the SPLA.

Noting that the “humanitarian access situation” in the south has “deteriorated sharply” this year, the OCHA report said that the most commonly reported problem in 2011 to date was the “commandeering of humanitarian vehicles and demands for use of humanitarian assets by (the) Sudan People’s Liberation Army.”

While the southern army’s appropriating of aid group supplies is a significant part of the current problem, the sheer fact that army-rebel fighting is occurring in areas where civilians and soldiers, families and rebels, live closely together, is another reason why harm to civilians and their properties has been such a prominent facet of the army campaigns against rebels across the oil-producing Greater Upper Nile region.

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