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War strips southern Sudan bare: Tribal fighting among rebels has increased hunger, writes Richard Dowden in Kongor

SCORES of people will starve to death here in the next few days because the United Nations has missed the chance to send food supplies in the past week.

Last night the opportunity ended, as fighting was reported 30 miles to the north between the two factions of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The UN decided not to fly here for several days because of the reports. Although the town has been peaceful for the past few days, the World Food Programme has not delivered food since last Wednesday. No reason has been given, and last night a senior UN official contacted in Lokichoggio, the UN base in northern Kenya, said he was too busy to talk to the Independent.

The food delivered last week was immediately distributed, and many people have not eaten since. They have been weakened by months of hunger, and some are already dying. According to the local relief committee, 40,000 people are registered for food aid.

Every morning hundreds of very hungry people arrive from surrounding areas. They walk slowly out of the scrub which stretches across this vast plain: very tall, very black people. Some have a blanket and car-tyre sandals; some have a stick and a necklace of cowrie shells. Many have nothing. They come naked. All are starving.

They have been drawn by a regular supply of food that began on 16 April. Then it dried up and they now hang around the airstrip waiting. Most of them are sleeping in the open and have nothing more than a blanket.

The room for new arrivals in the feeding centre is a horror of black skeletons with skin and huge dark eyes. Mothers with withered breasts wave flies away from the faces of their babies. The babies, like grotesque foetal corpses, lie and stare intently. They never make a sound.

The fighting is a new round of the two-year war between the two wings of the SPLA. It has split along tribal lines: Dinka and Nuer. This Dinka area was ravaged by a Nuer invasion two years ago. All the cattle were killed or stolen, which is why these people are starving. One old man said: 'Even for our oldest men this was unimaginable. Nothing like this has ever happened in the remembered history of the Dinka people.' Each household used to have 30 head of cattle, each named and cherished. The Dinka can live off milk alone for weeks on end.

Last month the Dinka wing, led by John Garang, swept back into Kongor and then drove the Nuer, led by Riak Machar, into his own territory. The Dinka sacked the small Nuer town of Ayod and are still chasing Riak's forces. The two tribes have a history of cattle-raiding, but this is total war - fought with Kalashnikovs and rocket-launchers - and will result in mass starvation.

There is no food in Kongor, and last night Philip Aguer, co-ordinator for the local Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, decided to distribute seed meant for planting, which was being stored in the warehouse. Once that has been eaten, people will starve.

The present fighting is occurring about 30 miles to the north, at Duk, but there are fears in the UN Operation Lifeline Sudan headquarters that the Nuer may attack Kongor. As a result of these fears, which are based on little more than rumour, the UN has said it will not go into Kongor for several days. As in Somalia, where the UN decided to withdraw because of insecurity, the organisation is ordering its staff to take no risks. And, again as in Somalia, the small private aid agencies are continuing to work in areas considered unsafe by the UN.

Goal, the Irish aid agency, has been advised by the UN not to send its three nurses into Kongor for a few days. They fly daily into Kongor to run the children's feeding centre there. However, the nurses and their pilot said they would make a final decision in the morning.

Yesterday the town was quiet, but about 30 wounded fighters were brought in during the day, and aid workers in the Nuer area said they, too, were seeing returning wounded.

Another disturbing factor is rain. It will make life even worse for those camping out, increasing malaria and water-borne disease. Worst of all, it will prevent aircraft from landing on the airstrip. Last night as the sun went down there was an ominous peal of thunder.