Sudan: Relief workers say helicopter fired on fleeing civilians

NAIROBI, 27 February (IRIN) - A government helicopter-gunship specifically targeted the homes of civilians and fired on people as they ran for cover during an attack on a relief food distribution in one of Sudan's key oil-producing regions last week, according to humanitarian sources.
A government gunship hovered over a compound housing several aid agencies before firing horizontally, aiming at civilian homes, according to relief workers citing civilians who fled the village of Bieh, western Upper Nile, after the attack.

"Rockets were used to blow up tukul [house] after tukul with people inside, followed by machine guns aimed at those running for cover," sources informed IRIN.

The US government on Thursday 21 February said it would suspend peace discussions with Khartoum until it received a "full and complete explanation" for the attack, which took place on Wednesday 20 February during a government-approved distribution of relief food to some 10,000 people in the area.

Although initial reports said 17 people had died in the attack, more recent information has suggested that at least 24 people were killed, and the figure could be higher still, according to informed sources. Because many people had been killed while still inside their tukuls, it had been difficult to ascertain the exact number of casualties.

Civilians caught inside their homes when the gunship opened fire had been "burned beyond recognition", making it difficult even to tell whether the victims were male or female, according to one account.

The attack at Bieh was the second clearly verified air attack on civilian targets in the oil-rich region this month. On 9 February, the village of Nimne, also in western Upper Nile (Wahdah, or Unity State), was bombed by government aircraft, killing five civilians, including an employee of the international health agency Medecins Sans Frontieres. Government helicopters had recently been a "common sight" in the area, often seen flying low over villages, humanitarian sources reported, citing displaced civilians.

The region of western Upper Nile, site of many of Sudan's oilfields, has seen continued fighting between forces loyal to the Sudanese government and different rebel groups at various times in recent years, causing the repeated displacement of local people.

The attack on Bieh had served to exacerbate the problems faced by thousands of displaced people in the area, forcing many to retreat into swamps or forests for safety, according to IRIN sources.

It was unlikely that they would be readily accessible for relief interventions following the Bieh incident, and many of the displaced would look to head south beyond Leer (Ler) District, they said.

The Sudanese government on Saturday asserted that the attack was a mistake which had occurred in the context of escalated military action against oil extraction facilities by southern rebels, and that it would form a commission of inquiry to investigate the incident.

"In the framework of this escalation, imposed on us, there have occurred some regrettable mistakes, which are not intentional, through which innocent civilians have become victims, and we promise to work hard to terminate and not repeat them," a statement from the Sudanese foreign ministry said.

By contrast, the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) has claimed that government forces have mounted a dry-season offensive in order to gain firm control of the region's lucrative oilfields.

A recent escalation in fighting in western Upper Nile appears to be linked to the signing in January of a merger agreement between the two main rebel groups operating in southern Sudan - John Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army and the Sudan People's Defence Force, led by Riek Machar, according to analysts.


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