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Tribal wrestlers return to fight for peace in Sudan's troubled South

It was an inauspicious beginning. One of the teams in the inaugural "world championship" of Southern Sudanese wrestling refused to take the field, complaining that its end had been cursed.

As thousands of supporters filled the "national" stadium of what is expected to soon become Africa's newest country, tortured negotiations ensued. The temperature in Juba rose from morning heat to midday cauldron, but eventually the teams from Jonglei State and Central Equatoria lined up to fight.

The return of inter-tribal wrestling after a 22-year absence during Sudan's civil war was the brainchild of Peter Biar Ajak, a young World Bank official who lived during the conflict in the US, where he became a fan of WWF wrestling. That gave him what he thinks will be a money-spinning idea: "Wrestling is the identity of South Sudan. It's what the country will be known for."

The tradition in the South grew out of the vast roving cattle camps where hundreds of young men would compete for status. The camps also provided many of the fighters for the rival factions prior to the peace deal in 2005. Cattle raids and armed clashes between different tribes and factions killed more than 2,000 people last year. So the would-be Don King of traditional wrestling gathered up young men from the cattle camps to fight in the sporting arena in a bid to help to keep the peace.

Ritual dances are integral to the action and the 15-man teams have entourages of hundreds. Before the fighters engaged, they were yelled at and whipped with branches in the goalmouth while a man in a pin-stripe suit and cowboy hat cavorted frantically around the field lashing invisible enemies with a horse-hair whip.

After a disappointing drawn first bout, the second fight was brutal, ending with one man's knee dislocated. One end erupted and hundreds of supporters streamed onto the field despite being hit with canes by police.

Tribal tensions run high here, prompting fears that if the South votes to split from the North at a referendum next month, there will be a Southern civil war. No one in the stadium doubted that it was tribal glory that was at stake, with the biggest ethnic group the Dinka taking on the Mundari.

The third fight ended in confusion with neither man going down and a melée broke out drawing in police and soldiers in a half-dozen hues of uniform. The Mundari complained of "tribal bias" and refused to fight on. Each side began elaborate leaping dances, but most onlookers agreed the Mundari had realised they were outmatched by the huge Dinka fighters and "indirectly surrendered". Despite the arguments and a lot of shouting, everyone filed out peacefully.

Among them was Gabriel Panchol, who returned to Sudan only a fortnight ago from the US. He wasn't taking sides: "I'm supporting South Sudan," he said. "It's quite hard to build a country."