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Sudan army poised to cut off rebels in the south: Government offensive is slap in the face for peace initiatives, writes Richard Dowden in Kansuk

BARRING divine intervention, the Sudanese army will shortly retake the last towns in the south held by rebel forces, establish its presence along the roads linking them and cut the rebels off from Uganda, their haven and supply route.

The long expected offensive began last week, and government forces are reported to be moving from Yei southwards to the Ugandan border at Kaya and are trying to retake Mundri, one of the last towns in the south held by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). They are also reported to be moving south from Juba towards Nimule to close the last road from Uganda, which serves as the main supply route of John Garang's faction of the SPLA.

Two years ago the SPLA controlled most of southern Sudan, but a calamitous split in the movement in 1992 allowed the government to retake almost all the towns and roads. This has set back the south's cause but will probably not destroy it, as the SPLA will revert to bush guerrilla warfare. As in most African wars, it will be the rural population that suffers. More than 100,000 people are expected to move southwards towards or across the Uganda border in coming days. Many are already living in displacement camps, having fled their homes because of war or drought.

The government offensive is a slap in the face for the many peace initiatives attempted by the international community in recent months, but the fighting is unlikely to be as dramatic as US diplomats in Nairobi described on Saturday. In a new-found public concern about the 10-year-old war in southern Sudan, David Shinn, roving US ambassador for the Horn of Africa, said in a press statement: 'The US government deplores the recent air attacks by the Sudanese government on civilian populations . . . The unconscionable assaults demonstrate a total disregard for the lives of innocent people . . . and undermine the ongoing humanitarian relief efforts.'

The statement said the attacks contravened humanitarian principles. Mr Shinn listed the 4 February bombing of Mundri two days after it was removed from the list of destinations agreed by the government and the SPLA where food aid could be safely delivered by the United Nations. He also spoke of fierce fighting around Mundri and attacks on a refugee camp by militias armed by the government.

Commander Scopas Loboro, the SPLA regional commander here, said government forces had attacked southwards from Yei but that 'our policy is to withdraw and save our soldiers and their weapons. Holding towns or any other areas is not our aim.'

There are unlikely to be any pitched battles therefore, and the bombing is conducted at high altitude by Russian-made Antonov aircraft, from which bombs are rolled by hand. Attacks have also been made by Chinese-built MiG-19 aircraft strafing roads and villages.

None of the patients at the hospital at Kajo Keji is a victim of war. The displacement camp here, which already holds 10,000 people, is a natural destination for anyone fleeing fighting but yesterday there were no new arrivals and no reports of refugees on the road. The arming of 'militias' by the government is a worrying development because it will exacerbate ethnic and tribal tensions in the area. The SPLA has already split along tribal lines and further defeats are atomising the movement, threatening the region with chaos and banditry.

A senior official of the World Food Programme visited the UN base here yesterday to ensure it was ready for a new influx of fleeing people - but there was no sign of flight yet.

The biggest concentration of displaced people in southern Sudan is about 30 miles north of Nimule, on the road to Juba, at three camps known as Triple A. They hold more than 100,000 people. These are all Dinka people who fled from their home area more than 200 miles north of Juba two years ago. Yesterday the relief wing of the SPLA, the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association, said that 70,000 from two of these camps would move to Laboni, just north of Nimule.

(Photograph omitted)