JUBA, (AP) — A rebel group attacked Southern Sudan’s military and four rebels were killed, a military spokesman said Saturday, a day before the region begins voting in an independence referendum that is expected to divide Africa’s largest nation in two.
Despite the attack, most officials predict the weeklong vote to go peacefully.
Col. Philip Aguer said forces loyal to rebel leader Gatluak Gai attacked forces in the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army overnight Friday, possibly early Saturday, in Unity State, an oil-rich area on the north-south Sudan divide. Aguer said the counterattack by SPLA forces killed four and wounded six of Gai’s men.
Southern Sudan suffered through decades of internal strife and civil war with the north. It has worked in recent weeks to strike peace deals with dissident commanders, but Gai’s rebels have not yet reconciled with the southern government.
Starting Sunday, southern Sudanese will cast simple, illustrated ballots at polling stations under thatched roof shelters in the remote and impoverished countryside and in Juba, a city of simple concrete houses and mud huts that got its first paved roads only in recent years.
If it passes, the referendum will split Africa’s biggest country between the mostly Arab and Muslim north, and the mostly black and Christian or animist south. Southern Sudan would then be on track to become the world’s newest country in July. Outstanding issues like sharing oil wealth, water rights and demarcating the border still have to be agreed to.
Aid groups also fear that southerners living in the north and northerners living in the south will face harassment and abuse.
The U.S. has made the referendum a foreign policy priority and has offered to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror if Khartoum doesn’t hinder the vote.
Sudan’s 1983-2005 civil war killed an estimated 2 million people and left many others missing one or more limbs. Juba, the southern capital, is full of excitement about Sunday’s vote.
“What we are doing is something that we have not done in our lifetime. This is something that has never happened,” said Justice Chan Reec Madut, the top southern official in the referendum commission. “Nobody every bothered to ask the people of Southern Sudan as to what their destiny should be.”