African News

Senegal: Rebel War Intensifies

18 September 2006 at 21:56 | 521 views

Thousands of people who have fled fighting between the Senegal army and pro-independence rebels in Senegal’s southern Casamance region are bedding in for a long wait to go home.

Fighting in the region started on 16 August, when the Senegalese army started moving north from a base at Sindian in Casamance, locals say. After an initial week of heavy fighting there was a lull until 24 August when more fighting was heard.

Last week, villagers and police in villages IRIN visited in The Gambia, 500 metres from the Senegalese border, reported hearing heavy artillery fire, automatic weapon fire, and explosions in Casamance on a daily basis, and occasionally seeing armed men and Senegal army tanks moving in close to their villages.

And on Tuesday, military sources confirmed an anti-tank mine laid in Boulayor, 80km north of the regional capital Ziguinchor, close to the border with The Gambia, killed a Senegalese soldier.

Senior Senegalese army sources have also confirmed several other skirmishes this week at towns along the border, and at Bignona, just 30km north of Ziguinchor.

There have been no reports of fighting spilling into The Gambia, although people in Siwol village, a small settlement close to the border, said they were forced to flee after several stray bullets shot through the brittle mud walls of their homes last week.

However, surveying by the Gambian Red Cross has identified more than 5,000 Senegalese who have fled into the tiny country since mid-August. Aid agencies in Ziguinchor estimate there may be an additional 10,000 internally displaced in Casamance.

REMNANTS OF INDEPENDENCE

The target of the Senegal government’s attacks, according to the deputy governor of Casamance, is a group of pro-independence fighters led by a reclusive rebel leader, Salif Sadio.

“The rebels from the south came to the frontier with The Gambia, so now the Senegalese state is taking its prerogative to secure the zone,” he said. “We have redeployed the army there to assure the security of the population.”

Sadio’s group is one of two wings of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), a pro-independence movement that has been pitched against the Senegalese government since 1982.

Rebels first took up arms because they said the government failed to honour a post-independence agreement to give the region independence in the 1970s, and had neglected the region relative to the rest of the country.

The second wing of the movement, led by another rarely-seen leader, Magne Dieme, signed a peace accord with the Senegal government in December 2004.

Since then, sporadic fighting between the two MFDC wings has been reported throughout Casamance.

According to the region’s prefet, Ousmane Ly, based in Sindian, the two factions have been fighting for control of strategic bases in the northern area. Sadio’s movement is based directly north of Ziguinchor, while Dieme is believed to be further west.

Locals in Sindian told IRIN that the inter-factional fighting had had little impact on their daily lives. “The fighting between the two groups was not especially concerning because they keep their bases far away from villages,” said Abdoulaye Gassama, head of the town school in Sindian.

“The two groups said they were fighting for control of land and bases but told the population ‘you can stay here, this is between us,” he said. “People heard the fighting but never saw it.”

Fears among villagers built up only after the Senegalese came in. Gassana said that this is when people started fleeing their homes.

“People are scared now that all the peace processes are finished. They have gone from here because they are scared the army will come to their villages and accuse them of being rebels and kill them or put them in prison,” he added.

HUMANITARIAN FALLOUT

Mamadou Kone, president of Agada, a local NGO in Ziguinchor, estimates there are 35,000 people living in the zone currently affected by fighting, and that half of these might have been displaced since mid-August.

“It’s the people who suffer the most because this is the season when cultivation happens, and if there is fighting people will not be able to bring in their harvests,” Kone said.

Casamance is rich in cashew nuts, rice and palm oil, but most of its people continue to rely on subsistence agriculture to live.

According to other local assessments - often little more than rough estimates of villages and numbers, drawn on scraps of paper and the back of cigarette packets - at least 15,000 people have fled their homes since mid-August.

Of those, around 5,000 are believed to have spent some time in The Gambia, although many of the villages are close enough to the Casamance for villagers to cross over for the day to tend to their animals and fields, before slipping back across the border for a safe night’s sleep.

All the new arrivals are either staying with relatives and friends, or squatting in schools and abandoned buildings. Their presence has more than doubled the size of many Gambian villages, according to the Red Cross figures, stretching health facilities, food, and shelter.

Humanitarian aid is being organized in The Gambia. A consignment of non-food items is on the way to the border, said the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR.

UNICEF, the UN’s children’s agency, is planning to dig latrines and sanitation facilities for the overcrowded villages, and is examining schooling needs, while the World Health Organisation is dealing with vaccinations.

But providing assistance to the 10,000 displaced in Casamance has been impeded by the deteriorating security situation in the region, aid officials said.

On 1 September, a Red Cross (ICRC) car struck a mine in Tandine, around 100km northeast of Ziguinchor, and outside the current conflict area. The explosion killed one international ICRC staff member and wounded three others.

The UN has since moved Casamance to an elevated security level and restricted the movement of aid agency vehicles throughout the region.

THINK TWICE BEFORE RETURN

A senior army officer in Ziguinchor, who asked not to be named because he was speaking without authorisation, confirmed the campaign would continue for at least four months.

According to him, the front could even be extended to include attacks on the second rebel group led by Dieme, or further east if Sadio’s faction moves in that direction. “We are the military and we follow the orders of the state authorities. If we are asked to go after Dieme we will do that,” he said.

Possibly raising the spectre that the rebels are rearming, news agencies have reported officials in Guinea Bissau, south of Casamance, as saying they intercepted a cargo of machine guns, mortars, rocket launchers, anti-tank mines, ammunition and explosives bound for rebels in southern Senegal, last week.

Aid agency officials in Ziguinchor said it is extremely unlikely the displaced villagers will return to their homes until the military campaign is over.

“We have the feeling that the army will not pull back any time soon as it thinks the space would immediately be filled with rebels again,” a senior official said. “Refugees and displaced will think twice before returning while they are there, and this raises longer term feeding and shelter concerns.”

This concern was echoed by Omar Kolley, the head of a 9 person family IRIN met in the tiny village Kang Jabina, one kilometre inside The Gambia. Having abandoned the family’s groundnut, cassava and maize fields in Casamance, the family is scraping by on handouts from relatives and cutting firewood to sell for pennies.

But “until things calm down, we are not going back,” Kolley said with a shrug, gazing at the lush forest where his home village is, and he thinks the army and rebels are lying in wait. “If we go back, we will be accused of associating with the rebels, and then who knows...”

Photo: President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal

Source: IRIN

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