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(New York) - The factional fighting in southern Sudan could widen into a devastating famine unless the U.S. intervenes diplomatically with rebel forces and others, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a March 1 letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Human Rights Watch called on the Bush administration to use its influence with the southern factions to stave off the potential crisis.

"This is a good example of where early and skillful U.S. diplomatic intervention can make all the difference," said Jemera Rone, Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The lives of tens of thousands of civilians are at stake."

Rone said various factions of the Nuer, the second largest tribe in southern Sudan, are fighting a no-holds-barred war among themselves. Their fighting threatens to reignite the war between the Nuer and the Dinka, another tribe in southern Sudan.

Human Rights Watch recommended that the U.S. insist that all military support to these groups be stoped and a cease-fire imposed; that the U.S. help convene an all-Nuer meeting in which Nuer could democratically resolve their differences; that the U.S. judiciously use aid to remedy perceived unfairness in the distribution of relief; and that the U.S. also reinforce diplomatically and with material assistance a Nuer-Dinka Wunlit peace agreement that is threatened by the factional fighting.

"The U.S. has tremendous clout with southerners. Now is the time to use it," Rone said. While the U.S. does not have similar clout with the Sudan government and its Nuer militias, it should advocate that the Sudan government stop interfering with relief deliveries and stop arming its abusive Nuer militias, said Rone.

Sudan is in the eighteenth year of a civil war that pits the Arab and Muslim-dominated central government against marginalized African peoples. The Africans live mostly in the southern third of the one-million-mile-square country, the largest in Africa. Sudan's almost thirty million citizens are divided into hundreds of tribes with no one tribe having more than 10 percent of the population.

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