Khartoum’s helicopter gunships attack World Food Program distribution in Bieh, Western Upper Nile
Eric Reeves | February 21, 2002 | http://wp.me/p45rOG-n9
Almost incredibly, the Khartoum regime has found a way to escalate its barbaric aerial assaults on civilian and humanitarian targets in the oil regions of southern Sudan. Spokespersons for the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) confirm a helicopter gunship attack on Bieh, in Western Upper Nile (about 50 miles south of Bentiu). This immensely destructive attack, during planned food distribution by the WFP, killed seventeen people, mainly women and children. Many more have been injured, some critically and with little chance of survival. Citing the UN and other sources, the Associated Press reports that five rockets were fired from a helicopter gunship directly into thousands of people seeking emergency food relief. Personnel of the UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) have been evacuated. The US State Department has roundly condemned the attack. Europe and Canada continue their appallingly hypocritical silence.
Eric Reeves [February 21, 2002]
Northampton, MA 01063
Bieh lies in the center of Block 5a, the oil concession of Lundin Petroleum and its partners, Petronas (Malaysia) and OMV of Austria. Lundin was forced to suspend operations in the area last month, and Khartoum’s attacks are designed to destroy all civilian and humanitarian presence, thereby creating the “security” that will allow the oil companies to resume operations. This is the same strategy that was chronicled so authoritatively by Christian Aid (UK) in its March 2001 report on this area (“The Scorched Earth: Oil and War in Sudan”).
In other words, Khartoum’s goal is to create a region in which civilian life is impossible. This is a targeting not of the southern military opposition, but the most vulnerable of all Sudan’s distressed populations. Given the nature of yesterday’s attack, the regime would seem well on its way to success. The UN has already evacuated its World Food Program personnel (see attached AP wire report). There can be little doubt that the Bieh personnel of Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres will follow. The people who came to Bieh for food and medical care are scattering, at least those who have not been killed or injured.
Oil development in southern Sudan is clearly, unambiguously, directly responsible for this massive and ongoing civilian destruction. The oil companies that are choosing to profit from their partnership with the Khartoum regime are inescapably complicit in this reality. These are not circumstances that require complex analysis. Nor is the essential conclusion difficult to articulate: either oil development is suspended, or civilian destruction will continue apace. So long as Khartoum has every incentive to continue its scorched-earth policy, it will do so. It will attempt to create a vast cordon sanitaire in the oil regions. It will reap massive oil revenues, and use these revenues to continue to purchase additional helicopter gunships and other military means of effecting a “final solution” to their southern problem.
Indeed, the SPLA/M reports that four HIND-24 helicopter gunships were involved in yesterday’s attack on Bieh. This would signal a significant increase in aerial firepower. The HIND-24 is an extremely potent military platform, capable of sustained air-to-ground rocket and machine gun attack. Unlike the Antonov bombers, flying at high altitudes, the HIND-24 helicopter gunships can fly low and hover, training extremely deadly fire on ground targets. In the past Khartoum was unable to field more than a couple of such helicopter gunships in a particular sector. Now they appear to have four for the region south of Bentiu.
There should be no mistaking Khartoum’s ambition, nor surprise that they have violated their pledge to the US to end such aerial attacks. This regime has made a diplomatic art form of reneging, disingenuousness, and outright prevarication. Commendably, the US State Department has today strongly condemned the attack; it also announced that it is suspending talks with Khartoum over the peace process that the regime seems so intent on undermining. But without other voices, without similarly strong condemnations from Europe and Canada, Khartoum will calculate that the US cannot do anything further by way of punishing them for their savagery.
This is why the Sudan Peace Act is so critically important: the bill would take direct aim at two of Khartoum’s major oil partners, Talisman Energy of Canada and China’s PetroChina/CNPC. The House version of the Sudan Peace Act would strip these companies of their New York Stock Exchange listings and their access to American capital markets. This would force Talisman to exit Sudan and put the state-owned Chinese companies in an extremely vulnerable position. Beijing would have to work to force Khartoum to make peace, or see its critically important access to US capital markets denied for these companies. PetroChina, which lists 90% of its equity on the NYSE, would see a complete halt in its equity trading. This is a serious incentive for Beijing.
It is a scandal to the legislative process that the Senate Republican leadership continues to prevent the Sudan Peace Act from going to conference (the House last year named its conferees, even as Senate Democrats signaled their unanimous willingness to go to conference immediately). The Sudan Peace Act was introduced by Republican Senator Bill Frist in July 1999. That the bill remains stalled in February of 2002 is deeply shameful.
There is simply no way to skirt what has become the most basic reality of Sudan’s catastrophic war: either oil development is confronted as a central issue, or peace will not come. Rather, we will see many more attacks like that on Bieh yesterday, Akuem and Nimne two weeks ago, and the many hundreds of other aerial attacks on civilian and humanitarian targets, victims of Khartoum’s brutally ruthless oil field ambitions.
From UPI, February 21, 2002:
One State Department official told United Press International that the “feeding site was clearly identified, there were 73 tons of food on or near
the drop zone, and large orange signs clearly delineated the area.”
This official added the food was intended for 10,000 civilians in the area, adding that the attack was “clearly deliberate.”
Associated Press Newswires
February 21, 2002
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – A Sudanese army helicopter fired five rockets
at thousands of civilians at a U.N. food distribution point, leaving 17
people dead, World Food Program officials and Sudanese rebels said
The helicopter gunship hovered over the U.N. agency’s compound Wednesday in Bieh, 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) south of Khartoum, and fired the rockets at civilians who had gathered to collect food, said Laura Melo, a WFP spokeswoman based in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the main southern Sudanese rebel group, confirmed the attack and reported 17 people killed, dozens injured, many of them seriously. Melo said two WFP staffers were overseeing the distribution and had counted 17 dead before they were quickly evacuated by plane from Bieh following the attack. Aid workers often use a compound in Bieh to provide aid to civilians suffering from Sudan’s 19-year civil war, which has left more than 2 million people dead from fighting or war-induced
WFP had notified the Sudanese government of plans to distribute food in
Bieh, Melo said. “All interventions are cleared ahead of time and this one was also cleared,” Melo said. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, sent a letter of protest to the Sudanese government Thursday, Melo said.
Sudanese government officials were not immediately available for comment
Thursday afternoon. “Such attacks, deliberately targeting civilians about to receive humanitarian aid, are absolutely and utterly unacceptable,” WFP chief Catherine Bertini said in a statement. “This attack – the second of this
kind in less than two weeks – is an intolerable affront to human life
and humanitarian work.”
The southern Sudanese rebels are fighting for autonomy for the south,
where most people are Christian or follow traditional beliefs. The
Sudanese government enforces Islamic law where it is in control. The
discovery of oil in part of southern Sudan has led to more intense
fighting in recent years.
Two children were killed and about a dozen people injured on Feb. 10 when a Sudanese government plane dropped six bombs on the southern village of Akuem as residents were collecting food. The food had been airdropped into the village by WFP three hours before the bombing. A few days later, the Sudanese government apologized for the incident, describing the attack as a “regrettable accident.”
The United States has stepped up efforts to negotiate an end to the
Sudanese civil war in recent months and recently brokered a cease-fire
in the Nuba Mountains. Fighting has largely stopped in that area, but
the rebels said Friday that they doubt the government’s sincerity.
“Yesterday’s helicopter assault proves that the regime’s leadership
cannot be trusted. They are determined to derail the peace efforts of
the Government of the U.S.A.,” rebel spokesman Samson Kwaje said in a
statement Thursday. “We again appeal to the international community to
stand by its obligations and charge the Khartoum regime with crimes
against humanity and genocide.”