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100,000 Sudanese flee from Khartoum offensive

MORE than 100,000 people are on the move in southern Sudan after fleeing from displacement camps because of attacks by roving armed bands of uncertain loyalty and a ground and air offensive by the Sudanese government against the rebel forces of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

One group of between 70,000 and 100,000 people are moving south from three refugee camps known as 'Triple A' after one camp was attacked at night by a gang who killed seven people. Mostly old men, women and children, the refugees left more than a week ago, walking through the dry bush with what they could carry on their heads. They are heading for a new site just north of the Uganda border. The other group of about 30,000 are wandering between Mundri and Mundari after the government captured Mundri from the SPLA last week.

So far there has been no big influx of refugees into Uganda as predicted by United States diplomats in Nairobi last week. UN aid workers in southern Sudan have reported no other movements of large numbers of people.

The Khartoum government, despite denials, seems to be pressing ahead with a three- pronged offensive, clearing the road from Yambio to Juba, pressing down towards the Uganda border from Yambio and advancing from Juba towards Nimule. An expected offensive south-west from Torit does not seem to have materialised yet.

The government holds all the main towns in the south except for Nimule; its forces are now about 80 miles north of the border town. However, the SPLA fighters in the faction led by John Garang move freely and can lay ambushes on the roads. Their main strategy will be to weather the offensive and preserve their few tanks, artillery and ammunition.

Air attacks cause panic but little damage. Bombing has been carried out by Antonov transport planes flying at high altitude. SPLA claims that refugees have been bombed have not been confirmed by aid workers.

A more crucial factor is the tribal make-up of the remains of the SPLA. The fighters now under pressure in the south are mainly Dinka people loyal to John Garang. The refugee camps in northern Uganda are southern Sudanese from other tribes. A recurrent theme in interviews with the refugees is that they are fleeing not from the Khartoum government but from 'the Dinkas'. Many refugees said they had never been attacked by government forces but had fled from pillage and rape by SPLA fighters.

The Dinka homeland is far to the north, but after the SPLA split in 1991, the Dinka faction of the SPLA, the fighters and their families, were driven southwards by the rival SPLA faction and settled in the Triple A camps. The attack on Ame camp 10 days ago that caused the refugees to flee may have been carried out by a group motivated by revenge against the Dinkas. This one brief attack caused more havoc than the entire Khartoum offensive so far because it may have deprived the SPLA of its food supplies.

The Dinka refugees, fed by the UN, give the SPLA fighters their food so they need to be kept as close to the SPLA fighters as possible. It is unlikely that they will cross the border into Uganda. But other non-Dinka refugees may join the estimated 171,000 refugees already in Uganda. As the government offensive pushes south, squeezing the refugees and the SPLA, the whole region on both sides of the border may begin to disintegrate into tribal warfare.