NAIROBI (AlertNet) – Human rights activist George Clooney accused Sudan on Thursday of committing crimes against humanity by burning down 26 villages as part of a scorched earth campaign in the war-torn border region of South Kordofan state.
Using satellite imagery, the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), of which Clooney is a co-founder, says it found that an area of 140 square kilometres was burned last month.
“What we’re seeing here is a widespread campaign of village and crop burning. We’ve seen this in Darfur, and it’s happening again in South Kordofan and Blue Nile,” Clooney said.
SSP said that the Sudan army and police, with the support of Popular Defence Force militia, are burning and looting villages in order to displace tens of thousands of people who they believe sympathise with rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N).
An official in Sudan’s information ministry, Rabie Abdelati, told AlertNet that SSP’s information was “false” and that the government of Khartoum is protecting civilians in South Kordofan.
Fighting has raged across Sudan's South Kordofan state since June last year, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. Aid agencies have warned of a hunger crisis in the region as food supplies run low.
Rebels in South Kordofan, who have their stronghold in the Nuba Mountains, fought alongside southern insurgents during Sudan's civil war but were left in Sudan when South Sudan seceded under the 2005 peace deal that ended that long-running conflict.
They say they are fighting to protect their ethnic minority from persecution. Khartoum accuses them of trying to sow chaos at South Sudan's behest.
Fighting has intensified since the end of the rainy season last month. In mid-November, rebels shelled the state capital Kadugli, in what the insurgents said was retaliation for government air strikes.
As aerial bombardments in South Kordofan have become increasingly frequent, many have fled across the border to South Sudan, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said.
South Sudan's largest refugee settlement – Yida, in Unity State – is experiencing an upsurge in new arrivals from South Kordofan, taking its population to almost 70,000. More than 4,500 refugees have been registered in Yida in the last two weeks – the majority women and children – the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said.
"We are concerned about the safety of women and girls fleeing conflict in South Kordofan and we are hearing reports of sexual assault while they are on the road to get here,” Stephanie Puccetti, who runs the IRC’s women’s protection project in Yida, said in a statement.
In mid-November, the United Nations said more than 85 percent of the refugees were women and children, many suffering from malnutrition and exhaustion.
SSP co-founder John Prendergast called on the United Nations Security Council and the African Union Peace and Security Council to put pressure on Sudan to stop the war and allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to the displaced.