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In their war with the central government in Khartoum, the principal Sudanese rebel groups have relied for political, military and logistical support on what are known as the frontline states—Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda—which in turn have received support from the United States. The rebels appear to obtain the majority of their weapons either on the open arms market (shipped via the frontline states), or from the government of Sudan in battle.

The Opposition Forces

The main armed opposition to the Sudan government is the SPLA, operating in the south of the country since 1983, in the Nuba Mountains since 1986, and in the east since 1996. From the outset, the SPLA had the support of the government of Ethiopia under Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam.169 This included the provision of uniforms, logistical support, arms, ammunition, military training, and even political direction. SPLA units based in the Gambela region in western Ethiopia participated in joint military operations with Ethiopian forces against Oromo rebels,170 and Ethiopian forces supported the SPLA in border clashes with Sudanese government troops. When Mengistu’s government collapsed in 1991, the SPLA, viewed as an enemy by the new Ethiopian government, was suddenly stripped not only of this rearguard support but also of access from Ethiopia to the territory it controlled within Sudan. The SPLA, and several hundred thousand Sudanese refugees, promptly fled from Ethiopia back into Sudan. After splits within the SPLA later that year led to fighting between rival factions, encouraged by the government of Sudan, the government recaptured several garrison towns in 1992 and appeared to be gaining the upper hand in the fighting. However, continuing Ugandan support for the SPLA, coupled with moves in 1995 by Eritrea to shore up a broad opposition alliance, gave the SPLA a second chance, while a reconciliation between Ethiopia’s new government and the SPLA that year gave the latter renewed access through Ethiopia to contested areas of southeastern Sudan. Starting in 1996, the SPLA also based a military force in western Eritrea, known as the New Sudan Brigade.

A second armed opposition movement that has carried out active military operations in Sudan is the SAF, whose main forces have operated out of bases in western Eritrea and western Ethiopia since 1995 and which since early 1997 has controlled territory within eastern and northeastern Sudan. The Beja Congress, which has functioned as a social movement for the Beja people since the 1950s and whose members are drawn from Beja clans native to the Sudan-Eritrea border region, is a third armed force with bases in western Eritrea that has been militarily active there. Forces of the Umma Party of former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi have also been engaged in combat. Other armed Sudanese groups with military units in western Eritrea which were not directly involved in combat by the end of 1997 included the Sudan National Party from the Nuba mountains and the Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance, which drew its membership from Sudan’s western Darfur region.

The Frontline States

Human Rights Watch found growing involvement in the war in Sudan by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda through arms flows, the hosting of armed opposition forces, and some direct intervention. Eritrea has made a public show of its support for the opposition, breaking diplomatic relations with Khartoum inDecember 1994, giving the former Sudanese embassy to the opposition NDA in June 1995, and offering training bases in western Eritrea starting in 1995 which have been visited and reported on by independent journalists.171 During a visit to the frontier within Eritrea, Human Rights Watch observed SAF forces west of Tessenei armed with Kalashnikov rifles and light machine guns. Human Rights Watch also observed that Eritrea allows the SAF to use its territory for training, and supports its activities. Eritrean army units were deployed a few kilometers behind SAF units based on the Eritrean side of the Eritrea-Sudan border west of Tessenei. One Sudanese official claimed that the Eritrean government has set up training camps for a number of these opposition forces at Sawa, Haikota, and Agordat.172 Sawa is the main training camp for Eritrea’s armed forces, while Agordat is a large market center. During a Human Rights Watch visit to these two locations, no Sudanese opposition forces were either visible or said to be present. Human Rights Watch did not visit Haikota, a small town that is known to have a SAF camp nearby. All three towns are in the country’s western lowlands, near the Sudan border.

Sudanese government officials have also charged that Eritrean military forces first fired on Sudanese government positions at Awad in February 1996, near the border between the two countries. Moreover, the government of Sudan has accused Eritrea, or forces operating from its territory, of placing landmines on roads within Sudan, citing instances in July, August, September, and October 1996 in northeastern Sudan.173 In early 1997, the government of Sudan charged that attacks were launched in northeastern Sudan by “terrorist elements accompanied by Eritrean soldiers.”174 These charges came at a time when SAF forces began to claim responsibility for armed actions inside Sudan. Later, a high-ranking Sudanese official claimed that the anti-government campaign launched in the northeast in March 1997 was carried out by Eritrean forces which invaded Sudan and then handed captured materiel over to opposition groups after securing control of territory stretching from the border town of Karora north to Aqiq and Tokar and west toward Kassala.175 An SPLA spokesperson admitted in May 1998 that Eritrean tank crews and trainers and close reconnaissance units had accompanied SPLA troops in the March 1997 campaign in southern Sudan.176

Ethiopia has been more discreet in its involvement with Sudanese opposition forces since 1991, when the present government seized power in Addis Ababa, but it has also opened its territory to NDA forces for access to combat areas and for training.177 Moreover, the government of Sudan accused Ethiopia of invading Sudan with an army division that drove one hundred kilometers inside the country, capturing fourtowns, in March 1997.178 A few months later, according to Sudan’s then-state minister for external relations, Dr. Mustafa Osman Ismail, relations with Ethiopia, unlike with Eritrea or Uganda, had improved considerably. He said he had been in Addis Ababa in October 1997, and that the two sides were in negotiations and had “agreed to keep the water within the banks.”179

For its part, Uganda has strongly supported the SPLA, providing it with access to arms and permission to train its forces within its territory, and, at times, sending its own armed forces across the Sudan border in military campaigns involving actual combat. The government of Sudan has accused Uganda of direct involvement in combat dating back to an attack on Sudanese government positions in southern Sudan in October 1995, which it said was led by Ugandan forces.180 According to former LRA child abductees who were at the LRA’s Biroka camp in southern Sudan in 1995, the UPDF and SPLA conducted a joint attack on the LRA at Biroka camp in October of that year.181

Several sources stated that Ugandan forces were directly involved in combat within Sudan in March 1997. Human Rights Watch interviewed seven Sudanese “POWs” in Yei, all commissioned officers. None of the prisoners provided concrete information on the sources of arms to the government of Sudan, but the ranking officer stated that the initial shelling in the attack on the government forces in Kaya came from the Ugandan side of the border. He said that this included howitzers, tanks, and mortars.182 The following day, at the Ugandan border post of Oraba, Human Rights Watch was unexpectedly accosted by a sergeant in the Uganda People’s Defence Forces, who volunteered (without being asked) that it had only taken his UPDF unit two days to fight its way to Yei during the March offensive.183 Former LRA child soldiers told Human Rights Watch that UPDF forces had joined with the SPLA to attack the LRA’s Aru camp, located approximately forty-seven miles from Juba inside Sudan, on April 9-10, 1997.184 Maj.-Gen. (retired) Salim Saleh, Uganda’s overseer of the Ministry of Defense and President Museveni’s half-brother, expressed frustration with Sudan’s support for the LRA to Human Rights Watch, and suggested that the UPDF was continuing to consider attacking LRA bases inside Sudan: “We had to attack these problems from the source, go after Sudan directly. We are looking at different options. To let Kony sit there because of international law [of sovereignty], we won’t accept this anymore.”185

In Gulu in northern Uganda, a former relief worker in the Gulu area told Human Rights Watch that he had personally witnessed Ethiopian military aircraft landing at the Gulu airport with supplies and equipment on an almost nightly basis in February 1997, prior to the March offensive. He also claimed to have seen Eritreans in or around the UPDF barracks, and he said that UPDF officers told him that Eritreans were involved in training SPLA forces there. A Sudanese government official also charged that Eritrean and Ethiopian mercenaries have driven SPLA tanks and fought in SPLA uniforms and that Eritrean troops, tank drivers, and operators of heavy artillery were involved in the March 1997 fighting at Yei and Kaya.186 The government of Sudan has also accused Uganda of sheltering SPLA leaders, providing them with travel documents, helping them to set up training camps, allowing them to recruit members from refugee camps, using Uganda for transshipment of arms from Kenya and Tanzania, and manufacturing landmines and hand grenades at two locations within Uganda (Nakangosola and Luero).187

The Rebels’ Arms Acquisitions

The Sudanese rebels, by their own account, obtain the majority of their weapons either through purchases on the international arms market or in combat with forces of the government of Sudan. SPLA claims that it had captured large quantities of Sudanese government arms in southern Sudan in early 1997, including tanks and artillery, have been confirmed by the eyewitness accounts of independent journalists who toured SPLA-controlled areas shortly after the March 1997 fighting188 and by a Human Rights Watch visit to the same areas three months later. SAF leaders also claimed to have captured substantial quantities of light and medium arms and some Soviet-model T-54 tanks in battles with government forces in the east and northeastern fronts in April 1997.

In addition, light arms have reached Sudanese opposition forces through an informal smuggling network within Africa that stretches as far south as Mozambique and Angola, according to sources in Nairobi.189 Landlocked as they are, Sudanese opposition forces are heavily dependent on the cooperation of one or another of the frontline states for the transshipment of such arms. Human Rights Watch confirmed the use of Uganda as a transshipment route for arms intended for the SPLA on several occasions, observing in July 1997 more than one hundred wooden crates of ammunition in Morobo, Sudan (between Kaya and Yei) with shipping instructions clearly marked “To Uganda, via Tanzania” that SPLA officials identified as SPLA equipment that was not to be photographed. Similarly labeled stores of ammunition were observed at other sites, which Human Rights Watch was not permitted to photograph or to approach closely. During that same visit, Human Rights Watch saw crates, at least one of which contained rocket-propelled grenades, that were marked: “MOD Uganda J4951208WMH,” and underneath: “DAR ES SALAAM ITEM(B) NOS.250,” indicating the crates had arrived via Tanzania and Uganda.

In September 1997, South African press reports stated that SPLA troops had been seen with South African-made armored vehicles, ammunition and anti-aircraft missiles, supplied to the rebels by or throughUganda.190 A Sudanese government official subsequently charged that the SPLA has South African-made Mamba armored vehicles that were sold to Uganda and then passed on to the rebels. This official also claimed that South African ex-soldiers have worked as mercenaries with the SPLA: “They are not engaging in combat but are training SPLA guerrillas and handle some of their missiles. We have seen them in the back of the battlefield,” he told Human Rights Watch.191 The same official also claimed that government forces had recovered an Indian-made Milan wire-guided antitank weapon during fighting in the south with the SPLA and that Indian officials, when confronted with this, said that a foreigner who worked with a gold-mining company in southern Sudan had obtained the antitank weapons independently.192

In March 1998, Human Rights Watch wrote letters to the governments of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda to solicit their comments on reports of their aiding Sudanese rebel forces, and as of the middle of August 1998 had received a reply only from the government of Ethiopia. A senior Foreign Ministry official wrote to state that “all the points raised by Human Rights Watch...have no relevance to the present political reality of Ethiopia,” because, he said, “ no way indulges in an activity that undermines the peace and stability of a neighbourly sisterly country,” and “in addition as a country which has experienced a protracted civil war, which has claimed the life of million [sic] of its citizens and caused an incalculable loss of property will have neither the political nor the moral ground to involve in an activity which exacerbates the conflict in the Sudan.”193 The Ugandan High Commissioner in South Africa was quoted as having given assurances to South Africa in 1997 that no equipment provided by South Africa to Uganda had been passed on to the SPLA (or Rwanda).194

The U.S. Role

Uganda, Eritrea, and Ethiopia have each received military and political support from the United States since 1995. U.S. military experts have run special programs in Ethiopia and Uganda after those countries volunteered to participate in the U.S.-backed African Rapid Deployment Force project in 1996, and U.S. military units have assisted the Eritreans with demining operations, as well as providing advice on “professionalizing” the new country’s armed forces after independence from Ethiopia. At the end of 1996, the U.S. also announced plans to provide the three frontline states with $20 million in what it termed “nonlethal military aid”—uniforms, boots, tents, trucks, and other military equipment—to enhance their defensive capacities. A Sudanese government official has since charged that the U.S. provided Eritrea andEthiopia with sophisticated radio-interception and jamming equipment.195 Diplomats in the region have also cited U.S. pressure on representatives of allied states not to expose arms networks catering to Rwandan and Burundian Hutu rebels in Kenya, as these same networks serve the SPLA.196

In fiscal years (FY) 1997 and 1998, all three states received funding under the U.S. International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. Eritrea received $413,000 in FY1997 and $425,000 in FY 1998; Ethiopia received $313,000 in FY1997 and $475,000 in FY1998; and Uganda received $342,000 in FY1997 and $400,000 in FY1998.197 The only official U.S. Africa Crisis Response Initiative training of frontline states took place in Uganda in May 1997, involving about 750 Ugandan troops. There are no segregable figures for the cost of the ammunition and equipment used solely for ACRI training, whose equipment (as opposed to training) budget was $4.5 million in FY1997 and $10 million in FY1998 for the entire program (including Uganda and Ethiopia).198 Moreover, the U.S. sold $1,934,000 in defense articles and services to Eritrea under the Foreign Military Sales program in FY1997. Similar sales to Ethiopia amounted to $1,120,000, and to Uganda to $3,872,000.199

In November 1997, the U.S. unilaterally tightened sanctions on the government of Sudan—sanctions that were initially imposed in 1989 and strengthened several times since then—by blocking all Sudanese assets in the U.S. and barring U.S. individuals and companies from most transactions with Sudan. In issuing the November 3, 1997 Executive Order, U.S. President Bill Clinton accused the government of Sudan of “continued support for international terrorism; ongoing efforts to destabilize neighboring governments; and the prevalence of human rights violations, including slavery and the denial of religious freedom.” On December 11, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright repeated these charges during a visit to northern Uganda, signaling continued U.S. hostility to the government of Sudan and support for the frontline states which are backing the armed Sudanese opposition and are facing rebels supported by the Sudanese government. Secretary Albright’s meeting with SPLA leader John Garang and three other NDA leaders in Uganda triggered accusations by Sudanese government officials that the United States had “hostile intentions against Sudan.”200

169 For details on the relationship between Ethiopia and the SPLA in the 1980s, see Human Rights Watch/Africa, Evil Days: 30 Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia (New York: September 1991), pp. 325-46.

170 See Human Rights Watch/Africa, Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Southern Sudan.

171 See, for example, Peter Biles, Guardian (London), May 11, 1996.

172 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Mutrif Siddiq Ali, deputy director-general of the External Intelligence Agency, Khartoum, November 19, 1997.

173 Letter from Sudan’s permanent representative to the U.N., Elfatih Erwa, to the United Nations Security Council, S/1996/1007 (December 5, 1996).

174 Letter from Sudan’s permanent representative to the U.N., Elfatih Erwa, to the United Nations Security Council, S/1997/11 (January 6, 1997).

175 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Mutrif Siddiq Ali, deputy director-general of the External Intelligence Agency, Khartoum, November 19, 1997.

176 Human Rights Watch interview, Sudan, May 17, 1998.

177 Human Rights Watch traveled through Ethiopia to reach SAF-controlled areas of eastern Sudan in March 1997.

178 Human Rights Watch interview with Maj. Gen. Muhammad Sanousi Ahmed, deputy chief of staff for military intelligence, Sudan People’s Armed Forces, Khartoum, November 20, 1997.

179 Human Rights Watch interview, Khartoum, November 20, 1997. Dr. Ismail became Sudan’s minister of external relations in early 1998.

180 Human Rights Watch interview with Maj. Gen. Muhammad Sanousi Ahmed, deputy chief of staff for military intelligence, Sudan People’s Armed Forces, Khartoum, November 20, 1997.

181 The abductees later managed to escape to Uganda, where they were interviewed by Human Rights Watch in April 1998.

182 Human Rights Watch interview, Yei (Sudan), July 11, 1997.

183 Human Rights Watch interview, Oraba (Uganda), July 12, 1997.

184 Human Rights Watch interviews, northern Uganda, April 1998.

185 Human Rights Watch interview, Gulu, April 25, 1998.

186 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Mutrif Siddiq Ali, deputy director-general of the External Intelligence Agency, Khartoum, November 19, 1997.

187 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Mutrif Siddiq Ali, deputy director-general of the External Intelligence Agency, Khartoum, November 19, 1997.

188 Human Rights Watch interview with James Hooper, London, May 24, 1997.

189 Human Rights Watch interviews with organizers of a conference on the small arms trade in Africa, Nairobi, September 5, 1996.

190 Marion Edmunds, “SA Arms in the Sudan Conflict,” Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg), September 4, 1997.

191 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Mutrif Siddiq Ali, deputy director-general of the External Intelligence Agency, Khartoum, November 19, 1997. At the end of July 1998, the Sudanese ambassador to South Africa, Nasr Eddin Ahmed Idris, stated in response to a South African television report on July 28 that “there is no evidence” that the government of South Africa had supplied weapons to Sudanese rebels, but reiterated earlier allegations that South African nationals had been involved in aiding the rebels. “Sudan Envoy Clears SA Government of Links to Arms Deals,” SAPA-AFP, July 31, 1998.

192 Human Rights Watch interview, Khartoum, November 19, 1997. Dr. Ali also said that he accepted the explanation offered by the Indian officials.

193 Letter from Berhanu Kebede, director general for International Organizations and Economic Cooperation at the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to Human Rights Watch on May 21, 1998.

194 “Weapons for Uganda,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, September 3, 1997.

195 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Mutrif Siddiq Ali, deputy director-general of the External Intelligence Agency, Khartoum, November 19, 1997.

196 Human Rights Watch interviews with U.S. and U.N. officials involved in the investigation of these networks, Nairobi, August 12 and 18, 1996, respectively. See Stoking the Fires, pp. 32-33.

197 Secretary of State, “Congressional Presentation for Foreign Operations Fiscal Year 1999” (Washington, DC: 1998), pp. 83 (Eritrea), 85 (Ethiopia), and 134 (Uganda).

198 Ibid., p. 140.

199 “U.S. Military Sales to Africa and the Middle East for 1997,” Defense Affairs of Africa and the Middle East (Darlington, Maryland), vol. 1, no. 1 (May 1998), p. 5. Eritrea also purchased $544,000, and Ethiopia $388,000, in “construction” sales under FMS. In addition, licenses had been issued for the commercial sale of U.S. defense articles and services to Eritrea in the amount of $900,000 and to Uganda in the amount of $4,000 at the end of FY1997.

200 “Sudan vows to expose US ‘hostility.’” Agence France Presse, December 14, 1997.

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