By Jeremy Clarke
JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - The United Nations on Tuesday called for southern Sudan to halve the size of its army after independence in July, saying its mix of conflicting loyalties and former rebels could lead to insecurity.
Southern Sudan voted in January to separate from the north and form a new nation in a referendum provided by a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war in Sudan, which claimed 2 million lives and destabilized much of the region.
Since the peace deal, the former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has prepared to become a national army, absorbing various militia groups and fighters while disarming and demobilizing others.
David Gressly, the United Nations regional coordinator for Southern Sudan, told Reuters in an interview that the SPLA had between 150,000 and 200,000 soldiers, and that "probably more" than half should be demobilized after secession.
"This is an army that has absorbed a large number of groups since 2005, I would say over 20 to 25 groups have come on board, so (there are) varying degrees of loyalty as well as discipline," Gressly said.
"There's no need for it. You can have a more effective army that's smaller than a larger army that is not as professional as it could be. They'd be better off with a better trained and a smaller army."
After a lull in violence around the historic vote, the region erupted in south-on-south fighting. The United Nations says more than 1,500 people have been killed this year, many as rogue SPLA soldiers turned on the army.
Gressly said once the south declares independence in less than three weeks, the SPLA can receive more external help and training for its forces.
"The key now is to look at how to demobilize the large numbers so you retain a core group where focus can be placed to professionalize them as an army."
The call to halve the south's armed forces may unsettle some southerners as ongoing north-south tensions continue along the border, with some analysts warning of a return to open conflict over the contested Abyei region. Gressly said demobilizing half of the army in stages would improve its quality over time.
A deal to demilitarize Abyei was struck between northern and southern leaders Monday, despite reports of shelling and fighting between both sides at the southern reaches of the Abyei area as late as Friday.
"The important thing is the (Abyei) agreement itself," Gressly said.
"I'm not surprised to hear there may be some skirmishes, but the fact that the agreement has been signed, that there will be a withdrawal of forces and a new security force under U.N. command will move into Abyei, is a significant step forward."