KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Aid officials accused South Sudanese soldiers of arresting and beating four members of a UK aid group in a politically-sensitive area of the oil-producing region, but the army denied any use of violence.
South Sudan’s army (SPLA) said the one Kenyan and three Sudanese workers for aid group Tearfund were arrested on suspicion of helping anti-government militias.
Soldiers stopped the four men on Sunday at a roadblock near Kodok in the south’s Upper Nile state, aid officials said, an area the southern army says is occupied by supporters of southern opposition leader Lam Akol.
The southern army has accused Akol, Sudan’s former foreign minister, of leading a band of militia fighters in the region, an accusation he denies.
Akol, who split away from the south’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) to form his own Democratic Change faction (SPLM-DC) last year, accuses southern authorities of persecuting his supporters and rigging April elections.
Political tensions are rising in the underdeveloped and war- battered region in the countdown to a referendum on whether the south should split away from Sudan as an independent country, due in January 2011.
“Our staff were transporting medical supplies to medical facilities in the area ... At the roadblock the four staff were detained by SPLA forces and they were accused of having a political motive ... I can confirm they were beaten in detention,” said Tearfund spokesman Jonathan Spencer.
Spencer said one needed medical treatment while the other three were badly hurt. He said the men were moved to southern capital Juba later in the week and all four had since been released and told to wait in the city to face more questioning.
Tearfund has launched its own investigation into the incident, said Spencer, adding the charity’s policy was to deliver aid to anyone who needed it, irrespective of tribe, religion or political affiliation.
A senior humanitarian official in Juba, who asked not to be named, also said the men were beaten.
The SPLA said the army stopped the Tearfund staff after receiving information people from Akol’s Shilluk tribe were taking medical supplies to Akol’s forces in the area.
“We detained them and military intelligence was interrogating the Sudanese staff ... asking how relief vehicles are being used to help elements that are hostile to GOSS (the government of south Sudan),” said SPLA spokesman Kuol Diem Kuol.
He dismissed reports of beating as “a concoction”.
The referendum was promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of north-south civil war, allowed the south to keep its own army and created a semi-autonomous southern government.
Analysts say most southerners want independence. The SPLA has regularly accused Khartoum of arming southern militias in a bid to destabilise the region, disrupt the independence vote and keep control of the south’s oil. Khartoum denies the accusation.