June 11, 2011 / 12:15 AM / 7 years ago

UPDATE 4-S.Sudan accuses north of air attack, clashes flare

* South’s army says preparing for ground attack “any time”

* Army says three civilians killed in bombing

* Up to 40,000 may have fled S. Kordofan clashes-U.N. (Adds White House comment, paragraphs 8-9)

By Jeremy Clarke and Alex Dziadosz

JUBA/KHARTOUM, June 10 (Reuters) - South Sudan’s army accused the north on Friday of bombing a southern border village and said southern forces were getting ready to defend against a possible ground attack.

The south is preparing to secede on July 9 and fears of fresh fighting between the two long-standing rivals grew after the north seized the contested Abyei region on May 21.

The United Nations said fighting between northern forces and southern-aligned armed groups in the north-run oil state of Southern Kordofan had spread to the tip of the southern Unity state and that tens of thousands may have fled the clashes.

Philip Aguer, spokesman for the south’s Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army, said the northern military was trying to occupy areas near the border — whose exact position is yet to be decided — in an attempt to control the country’s oil fields.

“There has been an air bombardment by northern forces in Unity state, in the morning yesterday and again in the afternoon. Three people were killed in the morning,” Aguer said. The three dead were civilians, he said.

“We are expecting not only air attacks but also ground forces. We know their forces are moving from Abyei towards Unity state. ... We are getting ready to defend ourselves. Our forces near the border are on maximum alert and are expecting an attack any time,” he added.

A spokesman for the northern army was not immediately available to comment. In previous statements, it blamed southern or southern-aligned forces for provoking fighting in Abyei, Southern Kordofan and elsewhere.

The White House said on Friday night it was “deeply concerned” by the developments in southern Sudan.

“The United States condemns reported acts of violence in Southern Kordofan that target individuals based on their ethnicity and political affiliation,” the Obama administration statement said. “We call on the UN to fully investigate these incidents, and we demand that the perpetrators immediately halt these actions and be held accountable for their crimes.”

South Sudan voted to secede in a January referendum promised by a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of brutal civil war between the north and south.

That vote went more smoothly and peacefully than many analysts and humanitarian groups predicted, but a lack of agreement between the two sides on questions such as how to share debt and oil revenues has complicated the split.

The secession could see the north lose some 75 percent of Sudan’s current 500,000 barrels a day of oil output, the lifeblood of both the northern and southern economies.

VOLATILE BORDER

Northern forces have been fighting armed groups in the volatile Southern Kordofan border state since a police station was attacked on Saturday.

Between 30,000 and 40,000 people may have fled fighting in the state capital, Kadugli, alone, the United Nations said on Friday. The town’s normal population is estimated at 60,000.

“The fighting has spread to the disputed border area of the northernmost tip of Unity state in southern Sudan,” Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, told reporters in Geneva.

Armed checkpoints were set up on the main roads inside and around Kadugli and there had been reports of “large-scale” looting as late as Thursday, she added.

Kouider Zerrouk, spokesman for UNMIS, the local U.N. Mission in Sudan, said separately that MiG and Antonov aircraft bombardments were reported in the state’s Umm Dorain, Umm Serdiba, Heiban and Saraf el-Gamos on Thursday, and artillery fire could be heard near Kadugli on Friday.

“The security situation in Kadugli and its environs remains volatile,” he said. “Military build-up is continuing in various locations.”

Analysts have seen Southern Kordofan as a flashpoint because it is home to thousands of northerners who sided with the south against Khartoum during the last civil war. Northern officials have called last week’s clashes an “armed rebellion.”

The region also holds the most productive oil fields that will be left in the north after the split.

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki met with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on Thursday to discuss Southern Kordofan and Abyei and was scheduled to travel to Juba to meet officials there on Friday, state news agency SUNA said.

Abyei, long a centerpiece of the north-south divide, has been one of the most contentious issues before southern secession. It is used all year by the south-linked Dinka Ngok people and part of the year by northern Misseriya nomads.

Khartoum took control of the area with tanks and troops nearly three weeks ago, following an attack on a convoy of northern soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers that was blamed on southern forces. The move drew an international outcry.

Abyei was “calm but unpredictable” with sporadic shooting in the region’s main town, OCHA said on Friday. Some 101,800 people may have fled the fighting there, it added, up from a previous estimate of 96,000. (Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Alexander Dziadosz in Khartoum; Editing by Louise Ireland and Peter Cooney)

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