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511 Maj. Gen. Paulino Matiep’s spokesman said that Cmdr. Tito Biel’s forces seized four Chinese and several Sudanese workers in Koch at the start of the fighting on May 2 and took ten oil company vehicles. The vehicles, used to transport rebels to the front lines, were returned a day later to the oil companies and the abductees were released the day after their capture, he admitted. Alfred Taban, “Calm reported restored in oil-rich Sudan state,” Reuters, Khartoum, May 9, 1999.
Lundin evacuated all its employees (estimated at more than one hundred, many of them Chinese employees of Chinese subcontractors to Lundin): several rotations of planes flew them to Bentiu, twenty minutes away.512 The SSDF rebels withdrew. Before leaving the site, they shot up the oil camp at Ryer/Thar Jath (the employees had already gone) and the exploratory rig. The rig, not far from the workers’ accommodation, was not badly damaged but reportedly was later dismantled and moved from the area by Lundin.513 Shortly after its press release announcing a major find in Block 5A, Lundin issued another press release, stating that its operations were being “suspended” because of the “rainy season.”514 A second SSDF attack was launched on the same day, May 2, 1999, on the Ler army garrison at Payak.
This Sudanese army position at Ler had been a thorn in the side of the SSDF since the army entered Ler in April 1998 and refused to leave. Its presence pertained to the same underlying issue: who controlled Block 5A.515 The government had been resupplying and reinforcing its garrison at the Payak airstrip by helicopter from Bentiu. Clashes between the SSDF and government forces occurred at the Payak airstrip on May 2, 1999, as a helicopter arrived, apparently with reinforcements. 516 512 Employee of security consultant to oil company, interview, September 8, 1999.
514 After estimating that the oil find might be up to 300 million barrels, Lundin stated, “The rain period is just starting so Lundin Oil cannot investigate the current finding in detail until the autumn of 1999.” “Jackpot for Lundin Oil in Sudan,” Finanstidningen, May 21, 1999, abstracted from Finanstidningen in Swedish, World Reporter.
515 There were two airstrips serving Ler, one to the west near the government garrison (Payak or Gil) and one airstrip near the Ler hospital, called Pomzor. Isaak Magok, interview, August 14, 1999; Elijah Hon Top, interview, July 26, 1999.
516 Eyewitnesses told the Canadian human rights delegation in December 1999 that SSDF soldiers outside the army garrison had noticed, on May 2, 1999, a white helicopter arriving in Ler full of troops but leaving half empty. The SSDF shot at that helicopter.
Harker Report, p. 56. The Harker Commission further noted that on the same day, relief and other officials, before their evacuation
The government troops withdrew into their garrison,517 taking no further part in the fighting in this round. When Maj. Gen. Paulino Matiep’s forces entered Ler, the government garrison accepted their wounded but did not let the noninjured into their garrison.518 Government Army Occupies Lundin Drilling Site; Militia Forces Chase Civilians and SSDF Rebels to a Distant Corner of Block 5A Meanwhile, Paulino Matiep’s pro-government militia forces and a large government army and muhajedeen contingent were moving south from Bentiu to Ryer/Thar Jath and Ler. After pushing aside the SSDF ambush north of Guk, Maj. Gen. Paulino Matiep’s militia clashed with SSDF forces until the SSDF pulled back. A force of more than 500 regular government army troops joined by some 1,000 mujahedeen occupied Guk, which was then garrisoned with mujahedeen.
After the mujahedeen occupied Guk, the rest of the government and militia troops proceeded east to Ryer/Thar Jath the same day,519 occupying the slightly damaged drilling location unopposed. It has not been recaptured by any rebels to the date of this writing.
Maj. Gen. Paulino Matiep’s forces proceeded southwest to Koch,520 with Riek Machar’s SSDF not putting up much resistance. Running out of ammunition, the SSDF fighters withdrew,521 or “retreated defending,” warning the civilians that they were out of ammunition and the government forces were from Ler, had also seen a white helicopter bring troops to Ler—and added that it was flown by “Caucasians.” The origin or ownership of this helicopter has not been established. Ibid. These events occurred when the governmennt had a working military helicopter fleet of six, before the purchases of sixteen more such helicopters in 2001-2002.
517 SSDF officer, interview, August 3, 1999.
518 Thomas Duoth, interview, July 22, 1999.
519 SSDF officer, interview, August 3, 1999.
520 Tito Biel, interview, August 19, 1999.
521 SSDF officer, interview, August 3, 1999.
close behind. Many civilians fled on the tail of the SSDF, before they could be captured or killed by government forces.522 The SSDF withdrew to the Ler area but did not stay there long. When Maj. Gen. Paulino Matiep arrived in Ler, he occupied it without a fight as government soldiers had been reinforced by air and SSDF forces retreated southwest to Mayandit. The main SSDF forces—with thousands of civilians behind them—ran further south to Nyal and Ganyliel in Nyuong Nuer territory (Block 5B), protected by the sudd and seasonal flooding of the Nile. At Mayandit, some SSDF forces, led by Cmdr. Peter Paar Jiek, retreated west to the Dinka area of Tonj County in Bahr El Ghazal (the far western corner of Block 5A), with the civilians not far behind.
Mujahedeen militia arrived in Ler to join Maj. Gen. Paulino Matiep, and a regular army battalion reinforced the army troops already there.523 According to the SSDF chief of staff Elijah Hon Top who was in Khartoum at the time, Nuer pro-government militias were sent in from elsewhere in Upper Nile to support government forces.524 The army said that it destroyed the air strip in Nhialdiu (Block 5A) and thus denied the SPLA air supplies “from foreign organizations.”525 On June 12, Sudanese government bombing reportedly killed twenty-four civilians and soldiers as they crossed a river in that area, according to the SPLM/A.526
Each Side Accuses the Other of Instigating Fighting in Block 5A, May 1999
522 Isaac Magok, interview, August 14, 1999.
523 Most of the mujahedeen, after the capture of Ler, returned to Bentiu.
524 The pro-government militias of Nuer commanders Gabriel Tanginya, Gordon Kong Chuol, and Simon Mabor Gatwich Dual reportedly helped push SSDF forces out of Ler before returning to their home positions in other parts of Upper Nile. Elijah Hon Top, interview, July 26, 1999.
525 “Sudan army says destroys... camps,”May 23, 1999.
526 SPLM/A press release, Nairobi, June 16, 1999.
206Oil Fuels the War
The UDSF spokesperson in Khartoum blamed government troops for provoking the fighting on May 2 “by replenishing their armed forces at Ler.”527 SSDF Cmdr. Tito Biel similarly claimed that government troops, escorted by Paulino Matiep forces, were the ones to initiate the hostilities when they moved south from Bentiu into his zone of operations without SSDF consent.528 According to the government army, however, its forces were attacked when engaging in a normal deployment to a part of the south where they had the right to be, protecting the oil which was a national asset. The army had prepared for a large deployment south of Bentiu in Block 5A to safeguard oil installations Lundin planned to build.529 First Vice President Ali Osman Taha stressed that protection of the oil production was a national duty. Although production facilities were not seriously damaged, the government claimed it was the intention of the rebels to destroy the government’s gains.530 The armed forces spokesman Gen. Mohamed Osman Yassin claimed that his soldiers had repulsed SPLA rebels (not the SSDF), who attempted on May 2 to attack government troops guarding “petroleum sites” at Ler.531 Maj. Gen. Paulino Matiep’s militia spokesman accused the SSDF forces of attacking Paulino Matiep’s forces in a coordinated attempt to seize the oilfields with SPLA help, attributing this to plans formed “during Wunlit.”532 Cmdr. Tito Biel, he alleged, “has been working with the SPLA since the Wunlit conference of February and March this year  and one of the secret documents of the conference 527 Alfred Taban, “Pro-government militias clash over oil with Sudan army,” Reuters, Khartoum, May 6, 1999.
528 Tito Biel, interview, August 19, 1999.
529 “First Vice-President Affirms Government Keenness for National Dialogue,” SUNA, Khartoum, May 12, 1999.
530 “Sudan: Government forces dispatched to defend oilfields,” Sudan TV, Omdurman, in Arabic, May 5, 1999, as translated in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts.
531 “Armed Forces Spokesman Issues Statement,” SUNA, Khartoum, May 5, 1999; “Rebels reportedly targeting oil facilities in the south and east,” IRIN, Nairobi, May 6, 1999; “Sudan army says rebels attack oil installations,” Reuters, Khartoum, May 5, 1999.
532 Alfred Taban, “Calm reported restored in oil-rich Sudan state,” Reuters, Khartoum, May 9, 1999.
was the seizure of the oilfields.”533 Tot Galwak, a southern member of Khartoum’s parliament, also claimed that Cmdr. Tito Biel’s alleged realignment with the SPLM/A was in implementation of “a secret part” of the Wunlit agreement.534 It does not appear that the SPLA was acting jointly with the Nuer SSDF anti-government forces at this time. That came later, briefly. The SPLM/A had no presence in Nuer areas of Western Upper Nile/Unity State at this time, nor anywhere near the oil concessions or fighting, except in the Dinka enclave in Ruweng County in Block 1.535 It responded to the fighting in Block 5A by expressing its view that “the exploitation of oil resources at present will not be of any economic benefit to the Sudanese people but will rather lead to the escalation of the civil war.”536 The SPLM/A issued congratulations to Cmdr. Tito Biel for his “patriotic action” in fighting the government in the oilfields.537 As for the civilians living in Block 5A, one Dok Nuer chief, when asked who began the hostilities in 1999, responded rhetorically, “Who started the fighting? The one who defends his own land? Or the one who tells the people to move away from their own land?” The same displaced chief lamented, “The Arabs give money to Paulino [Matiep] to fight, and arms.... The jallaba [northerners] have captured our area.”538 533 Ibid.
534 “Pro-government Sudanese militia commander defects to SPLA,” AFP, Khartoum, May 17, 1999. Alfred Taban, “Sudan group reports more clashes in oil-rich state,” Reuters, Khartoum, May 11, 1999; Alfred Taban, “Pro-government militias clash over oil with Sudan army,” Reuters, Khartoum, May 6, 1999.
535 Part of Ruweng County in Block 5A, north of the Bahr El Ghazal (Nam) River, apparently was not of commercial interest to Lundin, which later permitted it to be released back to the government pursuant to the contract. That northern tip of Block 5A was closer to the GNPOC oilfields in Block 1 than to the areas of Lundin’s interest south of the river in Block 5A. This report covers the northern tip of Block 5A in the context of the adjacent GNPOC concession.
536 Dr. Samson L. Kwaje, SPLM/A Secretary for Information and Official Spokesman, SPLM/A press release, Nairobi, May 4, 1999.
537 SPLA News Agency (SPLANA), “Message to the Sudanese People on the Occasion of the SPLM/SPLA 16th Anniversary,” by Dr.
John Garang de Mabior, Nairobi, May 18, 1999 (text of radio message).
538 Isaac Magok, interview, August 14, 1999.
208Oil Fuels the War
In mid-May, the Sudanese government announced that the fighting had been contained and that the parties involved were working on a solution.539 The UDSF, the political wing of the SSDF, met but decided not to cancel the Khartoum Peace Agreement despite what it regarded as a government breach of the agreement.540 A committee was formed of seven UDSF members and seven government members; the government characterized their negotiations as “intensive.” The UDSF spokesman said that the Peace Agreement was “in a coma in an intensive care unit and it is up to the government to revive it,”541 then announced that on May 20, a six-hour heated discussion had reached “a deadlock.”542 On May 25, 1999, Riek Machar sent another letter to President El Bashir outlining the ways he said the government had violated the peace agreement.543 Yet, despite more challenges, 544 Riek Machar still held on to his position as head of the Southern States Coordinating Council as Western Upper Nile/Unity State went up in flames.
Civilians Displaced from Block 5A, May-August 1999
539 “Khartoum plays down alleged strain on peace pact,” IRIN (Nairobi), Khartoum, May 12, 1999.
540 Mohamed Ali Saeed, “Sudanese faction demands revision of peace pact with regime,” AFP, Khartoum, May 10, 1999.
541 “First Vice-President Affirms Government Keenness,”May 12, 1999; Alfred Taban, “Khartoum seeks to heal rift with rebel allies,” Reuters, Khartoum, May 20, 1999.
542 “Khartoum accused of violating peace accord,” AFP, Khartoum, May 21, 1999.
543 His list of grievances included: assimilating five SSDF officers into the government army without consultating with him; trying to create southern militias affiliated with the government to divide the SSDF; dismissing the governor of Unity State (Taban Deng Gai);
sending armed forces into Ler without prior agreement; and “deploying armed forces aggressively on May 2, 1999, without being justified on grounds of security, an action that threatened oil exploration south of Bentiu, Unity State, and led to confrontation and fighting against the SSDF.” Letter, Dr. Riek Machar, Assistant Vice President and Chairman of the Coordinating Council, to President Omar El Bashir, Khartoum, May 25, 1999.