South Sudanese see new state as buffer to LRA

by (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2011. Click For Restrictions. http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 11 January 2011 09:59 GMT

* Brutal Ugandan LRA attacks south Sudanese for supplies

* Southerners say independence will safeguard them

* Hopes south Sudan government can root out LRA

By Jason Benham

MARIDI, Sudan, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Yunis Egbaguru still lives in fear after she fled her village in south Sudan following an attack last month by the brutal Lord's Resistance Army, but she hopes an independent south will better protect her.

A polling station for a week-long referendum on whether south Sudan should split from the north it fought for decades was set up specially for the hundreds of refugees like her who squat in schools in Maridi, too terrified to return home.

Most expect the south to secede in the vote, which was guaranteed under the 2005 deal that ended the long war between north and south Sudan.

Known for abducting young girls to serve as sex slaves and young boys to fight, the LRA fought Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's government from neighbouring Sudan's lawless south for nearly 20 years until 2005, when it was ejected from its bases and forced on the move.

"I think they will come again. There is no ceasefire between the LRA and the government of Uganda and they do not have good relations with the people of south Sudan," said Egbaguru. "They are killing innocent people."

Peace talks hosted by south Sudan broke down after the LRA's elusive leader Joseph Kony refused to sign, some say because he feared a warrant for his arrest from the International Criminal Court for war crimes. LRA fighters now crisscross the borders between Sudan and its neighbours, raiding villages for supplies and maiming their victims.

"If we have our own country, the government will be able to defend us," the 58-year-old Egbaguru added.

VOTING CENTRE

Simon Mahmoud, in charge of running the voting centre, was one of 26 people abducted by the LRA four years ago while in church in Maridi. He was taken into the bush and released two days later with 23 others. Two abductees have not been seen since, he said.

"They get all the resources from the south. They want to disturb us and prevent people from living peacefully in a separate country," he said at the open-air polling station, which backed onto a U.N. peacekeeping base for protection and was sheltered from the burning sun only by tree branches.

Officials sat at an eclectic collection of white plastic and woooden tables and chairs helping voters.

Maridi town in the background was a mass of scattered mud-brick huts with thatched roofs. Its main road was a dirt track running into town from the airport -- more like a plastic bus shelter where U.N. personnel wait for the occasional plane.

Mahmoud said the semi-autonomous south's government in Juba, set up in 2005, supported young men from the area, who had formed a militia to protect themselves, called the Arrow Boys.

"If south Sudan becomes an independent country, they will do more than this," he said. They would deploy security forces more widely and patrol the border.

Maridi is near the border with the lawless east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mahmoud said an independent south would be able to stop Khartoum arming the LRA, an accusation the south has long directed at the north, although the north denies any links.

"The LRA get support from the north. The Khartoum government doesn't like southerners," Mahmoud, 40, said.

South Sudan's army has been chasing the LRA, who travel on foot in small bands, looting and abducting on their way. But the rebels moved into lawless and remote forest regions of the DRC and the Central African Republic, staging lightning cross-border raids on Sudanese villagers.

Meanwhile Egbaguru and others from her village rely on the hospitality of friends or relatives in Maridi, too scared to go home and living in the shadow of the terrifying LRA attackers.

"I feel afraid. I feel they will come back and attack again," said refugee Awa, 26.

(Editing by Opheera McDoom and Giles Elgood)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.