A former militia leader arrived in Southern Sudan's capital Thursday to hold peace talks with the president and army leadership, part of an effort by the southern government to project unity ahead of a looming vote on self-determination.
The oil-rich, mainly Christian south is due to hold a referendum on independence from the mainly Muslim north in January as part of a peace deal that ended a two-decades-long war between the regions. During that time, more than 2 million people were killed, often the result of the north arming southern groups and encouraging them to fight each other.
Maj. Gen. Gabriel Tanginye, who is holding talks with Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir was one such commander. He was one of original members of the southern rebellion in the early 1980s but ended up allied with the north for much of the civil war and is now a high-ranking officer in the northern Sudanese army.
Two previous visits to the south by Tanginye have both ended in bloodshed, said rights group Human Rights Watch. In 2006, he was allegedly involved in a clash in his hometown of Malakal which killed 150 people. In 2009, he returned home and 30 people were killed as soldiers from the north and south began fighting each other over whether he should be arrested.
Last Wednesday, Kiir issued a pardon for senior southern army officers who fought against the southern army. The pardon included Tanginye.
"There will be no more bullets fired against one another in Southern Sudan," said Tanginye, speaking through a translator. "The reason why we have been fighting for a long time is this referendum, and now it is coming. Why would we fight again?"
When asked whether he, a senior official in the northern Sudanese army, supported independence in the south, Tanginye diplomatically noted that he "went to the bush" to fight twice, and that he would not have fought for nothing.
His visit comes amid efforts by Southern Sudan's ruling party to woo potential opposition, including a conference that began Wednesday to bring together 25 political parties registered in the south.
"The visit of Maj. Gen. Gabriel Tanginye is a sign of the unity of Southern Sudan," said ruling party spokesman Ezekiel Gatkuoth. "All these men (who had defected from the southern army), all these political parties (who ran against the ruling party), they are coming back."
Comments from northern and southern officials are becoming increasingly hostile as preparations for the vote are dogged by delays. Kiir told the U.N. Security Council delegation that visited the capital Oct. 6 that the south might be forced to administer its own referendum if the vote was delayed for political reasons by the north.