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UN reports attacks on Southern Sudanese returnees

 In this Monday, Jan. 24, 2011 photo,Aker Aguer, 38, recalls her journey home from Khartoum to Southern Sudan. On Jan. 8, Aguer joined the tens of tho...
 In this Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011 photo, Athou Ahmed Mohammed, a northern Sudanese bus driver, sits in his bus in the southern village of Wanyjok. Moham...

Southern Sudan Attacks

In this Monday, Jan. 24, 2011 photo,Aker Aguer, 38, recalls her journey home from Khartoum to Southern Sudan. On Jan. 8, Aguer joined the tens of tho...

Southern Sudan Attacks

In this Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011 photo, Athou Ahmed Mohammed, a northern Sudanese bus driver, sits in his bus in the southern village of Wanyjok. Moham...

It should have been a joyful homecoming: Aker Aguer was returning home to Southern Sudan years after she fled a brutal civil war, to vote for her homeland's independence.
But then, armed raiders fired on bus she was traveling on with her five children, during one of several attacks on returning southerners reported by the United Nations in the weeks after a vote that drew international praise for being peaceful and orderly.
The attacks on convoys north of the contested Abyei region continued throughout the weeklong referendum in early January, marring a process that was otherwise largely peaceful, and continued even after polls had closed, U.N. reports said.
The violence along Sudan's contested north-south border shows that militias can still strike with impunity despite a heavy military presence on both sides of the border. Observers fear such attacks could derail key talks between the north and south preceding the south's declaration of independence, set for July.
In the past three weeks, U.N. agencies have reported at least eight attacks on convoys of buses plying several routes through central Sudan. The most serious incidents took place near the contested border hotspot of Abyei, a fertile area claimed by both northern and southern governments.
The U.N. report also said a convoy was shot at on Jan. 17 as it passed through the oil fields of Diffra, just north of Abyei.
On Jan. 8, Aguer joined the tens of thousands of Southern Sudanese returning home, encouraged by the prospect of her homeland becoming Africa's newest country. She was still north of the border, in a convoy of some 800 people on Jan. 9, when the convoy came under attack, despite a guard of Sudanese soldiers. Gunmen shot in the air to stop the buses then looted luggage and valuables.
"We were just frozen," said 38-year-old Aguer. Aguer was searched and said her clothes were torn by a woman who was with the raiders.
The mother of a 3-month-old baby was stabbed to death when she refused to give up her cell phone, according to an internal U.N. report and interviews with witnesses. A separate report, based on interviews with more than 80 families, said roughly half of them were robbed. Others reported missing family members after the attack.
"Even though they took everything, I am happy to be home with my children alive," Aguer said, sitting in a makeshift lean-to of thatched straw and wooden poles in the southern town of Aweil. Around her, new arrivals slept in the open; some had scrounged a plastic sheet or a bit of straw for a roof.
Holding the vote was a key part of a 2005 peace deal that ended the civil war, a conflict between the mainly Muslim north and mainly Christian-animist, oil-rich south that lasted more than two decades and drove Aguer and hundreds of thousands like her to seek refuge in the north and in Kenya and Egypt.
A U.N. spokesman said that the north and south have both agreed to increase security in Abyei and in the region of Southern Kordofan. The future of the region and whether it will be part of north or south Sudan is being negotiated by the two regions.
"These efforts for reducing and preventing violence are vital to help contain the situation," said Kouider Zerrouk, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sudan. "However, continued absence of a final settlement for the future status of Abyei leaves open the possibility of further clashes between the communities in the area."
Most of the people attacked said the raiders were Misseriya tribesmen, who fear losing their rights to graze in Abyei if the region goes to the south. Some said the governor of South Kordofan state, Ahmed Haroun, is encouraging and organizing the tribesmen.
Haroun is wanted by the International Criminal Court for his role in organizing government-allied militias often referred to as the "Janjaweed," which operate in the western region of Darfur.
"He's the founder of all militias in Sudan," said Mathiang Deng, a southerner who recently arrived in Aweil. Analysts say failure to reach an agreement on the future of Abyei _ which some describe as "Sudan's Kashmir" _ could derail the southern government's plan to declare independence on July 9. The final results of referendum have not yet been announced, but initial reports show an overwhelming vote for secession.
"The recent brutal attacks on convoys of returnees should send an alarm to the ruling parties," said Jehanne Henry, who leads Human Rights Watch's work on Sudan. "Their utter failure to agree on the terms of an Abyei referendum is leading to increased tensions in the area, and innocent civilians are paying the price."