By MAGGIE FICK
The Associated Press
Friday, March 11, 2011; 11:12 AM
JUBA, Sudan -- Scores of villagers have died in recent fighting in Southern Sudan despite the presence of 10,000 U.N. troops mandated with protecting civilians.
Now, internal documents say U.N. officials have ordered the peacekeepers not to operate in an area where civilians are at risk in upcoming battles, after being asked to avoid the region by the south's military.
Last month rebel troops attacked the town of Phom el-Zeraf over two days. Women and children ran for their lives - straight into a river, where many drowned or were shot to death. Some 240 people - mostly civilians - were killed.
Several hundred U.N. forces are stationed a 90-minute boat ride from Phom el-Zeraf. But no U.N. forces responded until five days later.
A month later, the south's Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army has launched a campaign to stamp out an intractable rebel movement in the southern state of Jonglei, according to internal U.N. documents seen by The Associated Press this week.
The southern military has told the U.N. that more civilians could be put in harm's way because of the military campaign, but according to internal U.N. security reports, the U.N. mission has agreed to follow a request from the southern military to suspend operations in the contested area inside Jonglei.
In one of the U.N. reports, dated March 7, southern army deputy chief of staff Lt. Gen. Wilson Deng met on March 3 with the U.N. official responsible for activities in the area of the fighting to discuss the operations against rebel leader George Athor.
Deng warned that the operations will likely result in "large displacements and collateral damages" and requested U.N. support to evacuate casualties in the wake of the operations.
The southern army official then "demanded" - according to the U.N. report - that the U.N. temporarily suspend all its operations in the areas. Based largely on this information, the U.N. document noted, the U.N. declared the areas specified by the army commander as "no-go zones" for the U.N. In practice, that means independent aid groups will likely make the areas no-go zones as well.
The U.N. also declared a no-fly zone over the territory, meaning aid groups are likely to follow suit.
The head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the south denied that his mission followed orders when faced with the army's demands.
"We didn't declare a no-go zone. What the military did say is that this should be a no-fly zone area," David Gressly said in an interview Friday. "That doesn't mean that we accepted that. There's a difference."
Gressly noted that when the security advisory on the new restrictions was circulated to aid groups and the U.N. community following the March 3 meeting, he personally instructed U.N. security officials to make clear that the new conditions set by the southern military "cannot be accepted as an absolute limitation."
The U.N.'s instructions in the March 4 security notice, however, appear more rigid than Gressly suggested in the interview.
"No U.N. Operations (Land, Air, and Boat) will be carried out in the No Go Areas," read the March 4 advisory, which detailed areas in three counties in Jonglei where the southern army instructed the U.N. to cease operation.
Gressly told AP that the U.N. mission has been working with the southern authorities to restore its ability to reach and protect civilians caught in conflict in the "no go" zones.
In the past week, the southern army announced that it had dislodged the rebel leader Athor from his bush outpost. International security sources in Juba told AP that the army was pushing Athor east, in the direction of the Ethiopian border, which could result in new populations of civilians being affected by the fighting.
The U.N. mission in Sudan is mandated with intervening to protect civilians. In 2009, the Security Council voted to bolster the capabilities of the U.N. mission to enable peacekeepers to intervene when civilians are "under imminent threat of physical violence."
Gressly on Thursday visited the Upper Nile state capital of Malakal - where the peacekeepers that normally patrol in Jonglei are based - in order to talk with authorities on improving the U.N.'s access in the area.
The mission also issued a statement Thursday expressing "growing concern over the consequences" of the army's operations against Athor's forces and appealed "to all groups to allow unhindered access" to areas where civilians may come into harm's way.
The impact of the U.N.'s decision to steer clear of the three affected Jonglei counties has not only affected the U.N.'s ability to reach civilians. One international aid worker said: "No one is there anymore."
"All the aid groups are gone," said the worker, who is not authorized to speak to journalists.
Communities living in the swampy territory within the "no-go areas" where the southern military is pursuing the rebel forces largely lack access to basic services such as health care and clean water.
Whether or not the U.N. mission should have pushed back against the army's demands is central to a debate within the world body about its future peacekeeping presence in Southern Sudan, which will become an independent nation July 9, according to international officials in Juba, Southern Sudan's capital.
Discussions are now under way in New York and Juba to define the roles and responsibilities of the new U.N. presence. Officials like Gressly are quick to stress the limitations facing U.N. peacekeeping missions.
"We can't be everywhere at the same time," he said in response to the Phom el-Zeraf violence last month. He noted that Jonglei state is the size of Bangladesh.
Gressly expressed optimism that the U.N.'s relations with the southern government were unlikely to degenerate to the state of relations between the international community and the Khartoum government, which has systematically derailed U.N. and African Union efforts to protect civilians in the joint peacekeeping mission in the western region of Darfur.
The top official in the devastated town of Phom el-Zeraf doesn't blame the U.N. for not responding to the attack his village suffered last month. He wishes his own government would have intervened. But he knows the blue-helmeted troops could have prevented the massive number of deaths.
"My whole government was killed. My people died in the water," said James Maluit Ruach. "Our entire community is mourning. This is a devastating experience that we have never seen before."