Major Military Offensive by Khartoum Imminent in Abyei

By Eric Reeves

March 13, 2011 (SSNA) — It has become increasingly clear in recent weeks that Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) intend to seize the Abyei region by military force. Satellite imagery and intel from the ground have confirmed a range of developments—including SAF movement of equipment and men—that make sense only in the context of offensive military ambitions. Tanks, artillery, work on the Muglad air base, work on the road leading from Muglad to Abyei town, forward military posts inside Abyei have all been confirmed. In aggregate, the evidence strongly suggests that the offensive might begin as early as the morning of March 14.

Statements today (March 13) by a senior regime official with primary responsibility for Abyei are an explicit threat that the SAF and militia allies will begin action in the immediate near term (Agence France-Presse, Radio Netherlands):

“Al-Dirdiri Mohammed Ahmed, the National Congress Party’s chief negotiator on Abyei, warned of ‘a lot of skirmishes’ unless the southern army withdraws thousands of ‘irregular’ troops from the volatile district by Monday [March 14, 2011].” (emphasis added)

“‘If the SPLA is not going to withdraw the police … the situation in Abyei might deteriorate, and could prove to be very serious within the coming few days,’ [Dirdiri] said.”

What’s impending is not a series of “skirmishes” but major fighting; the goal will be to take control of as much of Abyei as possible, and use this military seizure as the basis for final negotiation of Abyei’s status. The “police” Dirdiri refers to are military elements from the south that are now protecting several locations that have been attacked by armed Misseriya militia from north of the Abyei area, possibly with the assistance of the Popular Defense Forces and regular SAF (the villages attacked include Todach, Tejalei, Maker Abior, and Noong). The UN mission in the region (UNMIS) is essentially paralyzed, and the so-called “Joint Integrated Units” (units of both the SPLA and SAF) are simply not functional. In short, the Ngok Dinka of Abyei are without protection other than from the SPLA.

The most forward SAF military outpost that has been detected is Bongo, only 25 kilometers NNW of Abyei town. Tanks have been photographed at el-Kharasana, on the road serving as the NNE/SSW axis between Abyei and Kadugli. Present evidence suggests that the primary attack will come along this axis, with a flanking attack coming along the NNW/SSE Muglad/Abyei axis. Other sites in northern Abyei with a significant military buildup include el-Kharasana, Nyama, Heglig, and Diffra (the site of the only oil production in Abyei as defined by the Permanent Court of Arbitration).

Also of note are two towns in southern South Kordofan—Muglad and Kadugli (the latter the headquarters of the SAF 14th Division)—lying on roads that lead southward to Abyei; both have airbases that will be available to support an offensive in Abyei. [For a scalable and highly detailed map of Abyei, see ]

The primary military response of the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army has been south of Abyei and seems to have anticipated precisely this design of attack. The SPLA tanks in the region of Agok (south of the Kiir/Bahr el-Arab River) are substantial in number. The SPLA is also reinforcing its positions in Tagelei and Tadoch, where recent militia attacks on these villages killed and displaced tens of thousands (current estimates of the number of Ngok Dinka civilians displaced run to 45,000). Heavy trucks have been observed moving south to north to these locations.

Given Khartoum’s understanding that international pressure against this military action may mount rapidly now that it has become so conspicuous, the likelihood is that the offensive will begin sooner rather than later.

(Further military details are contained in the most recent (March 11) report by the Satellite Sentinel Project (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, UNITAR/UNOSAT, and the Enough Project):

Overview (March 11, 2011)

Following the recent destruction of three villages, there has been increased military activity in and around the contested Abyei region of Sudan during the past week. Actors aligned with both the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) appear to have improved their defensive positions and mobilized additional offensive capacity, including, in one case, vehicles consistent with the transport of heavy armor.

Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) has determined that in some parts of the Abyei region, elements believed to be aligned with the SAF and SPLA now lie within an approximately 20 to 40 kilometer range of each other. SSP also concludes that the SAF and SPLA appear to now have more units arrayed within 100 kilometers of each other in and around Abyei than at any time in the past two months of SSP’s monitoring of the region.

This rapid spike in apparent military movements by armed actors represents a significant deterioration in the human security climate in the Abyei region. SSP has identified a fortified camp consistent with either a Misseriya militia or SAF installation inside the Abyei region at Bongo—approximately 15 kilometers from Maker Abior, one of the recently burned villages. The camp appears to have been built around the road there between February 12 and March 3. Heavy Equipment Transports (HETs) used to move heavy armored vehicles have appeared in the past 48 hours at a suspected SAF outpost near Nyama, due north of Abyei. Artillery is still present at that position along with evidence of activity involving light vehicles and heavy trucks. The burned villages of Todach and Tajalei have been very recently fortified with foxholes and other defensive emplacements. Trucks have been seen moving from the south to the north along roads in that area where SPLA and southern police units have been reportedly operating.

The close proximity of northern and southern Sudanese combat-ready units and recently built defensive emplacements to one another poses an urgent threat to the security of civilian populations on both sides of the border. Additionally, UN peacekeeping forces (UNMIS) on patrol have reportedly been denied full freedom of movement by SPLA and southern police personnel in areas affected by recent attacks. SAF-led Joint Integrated Units (JIU) reportedly failed to respond to the February 27 alleged attack by armed Misseriya militia on the Todach police post, which was apparently 400 meters from their position at the time of the assault. The absence of a fully operational and responsive peacekeeping force further heightens the imminent danger to civilians posed by SAF and SPLA units massing in such close range to each other.


–Vehicles consistent with HETs used to transport heavy armor were visible as of March 9 at Nyama, which is located approximately 95 km north of Abyei town. Artillery continues to be present at that camp along with a mix of light vehicles and heavy trucks. Internal fortifications appear to have been improved there over a 48-hour period.

–A camp capable of housing an at least company-sized unit was built around the road at Bongo between February 12 and March 3. Fortifications consistent with foxholes are visible in a horseshoe formation. The camp at Bongo is approximately 15 kilometers from the destroyed village of Maker Abior.

–A circle of fortifications consistent with foxholes is visible around a position in the burned village of Tajalei. Heavy trucks have been seen moving south to north near that position in recent days.

–Fortifications appear to have been built around a suspected southern police post in the burned village of Todach in recent days. Heavy trucks have been recently seen moving south to north near that encampment.


–Recent activity at the suspected SAF facility at Nyama suggests the potential recent movement of armor in the vicinity of that position.

–The camp at Bongo is consistent with a potential SAF or Misseriya militia encampment due to its location and the position of its fortifications. Its appearance approximately two weeks prior to the attacks on three villages near that location corroborates reports received by SSP claiming that alleged staging areas for those attacks were present in that area.

–The recent appearance of heavy trucks and new fortifications at Tajalei during a period when UNMIS patrols were denied access to that area suggests that SPLA forces and/or southern police were reinforcing their position at Tajalei.

–Recent reports that UNMIS patrols were blocked from accessing Todach by actors allegedly aligned with the SPLA are consistent with the time frame in which the fortifications there were apparently constructed.


Eric Reeves has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade.  He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.

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