War in Sudan: the Kerry connection

Sat, Sep 1, 2012, 01:00

Conflict has driven over 100,000 people from their homes. Hungry and still under threat, the weaker do not make it to safety. Are Irish components playing a role in a vicious military campaign?

UNDER A BLAZING sun, scores of starving women and children walk the dry plains of the Nuba Mountains in Sudan’s war-torn state of South Kordofan. They are among 100,000 Nubians who have fled to the newly independent neighbour of South Sudan over the past year, driven from their homes by intense fighting between the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N) and the Sudanese armed forces. The week-long journey is an arduous one that the weaker often do not survive.

Since the war resumed in June 2011, after a failed attempt by Khartoum to disarm the population, bombing raids by Sudanese army warplanes are a daily occurrence in the Nuba Mountains. Villages have been destroyed and the people, largely dependent on farming, are unable to cultivate their land. Most have been forced to seek refuge in caves and rocky shelters in the hills, surviving on a diet of leaves, wild fruits and insects. Aid organisations across the border say some are starting to die from hunger, and the situation is expected to worsen with the advent of the rainy season. Every day about 700 people arrive at Yida refugee camp, 10km inside South Sudan. Khartoum doesn’t authorise aid agencies to operate in the affected areas.

Ahmed Tia, the commissioner of Buram county, accuses the Khartoum government of using hunger as a weapon. “Since the war started, the people have been terrified. They are living in caves. There’s no way to grow anything or graze our cattle. There’s nothing left here,” he says as he points to a bowl of boiled leaves and grass a family is about to have for their meal.

The SPLM-N says the Sudanese army, through its aerial bombardment, is trying also to prevent people from growing crops from which profits could be used to support the insurgency that has fanned out across the restive states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. They note that the same tactic was used by Khartoum almost a decade ago in Darfur.

People here fear what comes from the sky. The Sudanese army is using Antonov aircraft loaded with bombs, Sukhoi attack jets and helicopter gunships. Children have grown to recognise the roaring sound of the engines overhead, and “Antonov” has became part of their vocabulary. As soon as the sound is audible in the distance, villagers panic and run to shelter in caves dotted throughout the nearby hillsides. Because so many of their relatives and neighbours have died or been seriously injured in recent months, the people feel they cannot take any chances. “Usually when a drone passes overhead, around 20 minutes later the bombing begins,” says Jacob William Idris, a local SPLM-N fighter.

In a rebel base across the mountains, other SPLM-N fighters display weapons newly captured from the government forces. Iranian anti-personnel land mines, Chinese rockets and cluster bombs and Greek-made mortar bombs are among the contents of a pile of boxes camouflaged under some trees.

Capt Abdula Jumlah, commander of Jebel Kwo military base, near the village of Tess, declares that “the world needs to see what weapons Khartoum is using and where they are getting them”.

He accuses Iran and China of being the main suppliers of arms to the regime of President Omar al-Bashir, which then uses them against the civilian population of the region.

Among the recently seized weaponry, the rebels claim to have a pilotless drone that they say was shot down near a place called Jaw in mid-March. Aidan Hartley, a reporter for Channel 4’s Unreported World, was shown the aircraft in April. He said it was “filled with Iranian technology and had an engine part stamped with the markings of Irish company Tillotson”. Hartley noted that in 2009, an almost identical drone was shot down in Darfur and was found to contain technology manufactured in the UK and sold via an Iranian front company based in Dubai.

The rebel fighters here in the Nuba Mountains now display images of the drone component, which clearly bears the Tillotson name and the words “Made in Ireland”.

The apparent Irish connection astonishes Jumlah, the rebel commander. “I cannot understand how Ireland, a democratic nation whose people fought so hard for their freedom, could help a regime controlled by a man formally accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court.”

He says that under UN and EU regulations, knowingly supplying military technology to Iran or Sudan is illegal.

Jonah Leff of Small Arms Survey, an international weapons-monitoring group, says the issue of components for the drone in question is a complex one. “If this constitutes a sanctions violation, it would be on its sale to Iran, not to Khartoum,” he explains.

“UN sanctions on Sudan only apply to the transfer of military equipment into Darfur. If an Irish company knowingly sold the carburettor for use with military aircraft to Iran after the imposition of the arms embargo, it would represent a violation. There is the possibility, however, that the Irish company first sold the part to a third party, who then resold it to Iran, in which case would make the third party the responsible violator.”

Tillotson, a US company with a branch in the Clash Industrial Estate in Tralee, Co Kerry, states on its website that its HR Series diaphram carburettor can be used in what it describes as a “military spy drone”. John Mason, managing director of Tillotson, says his company complies with export regulations. “We can’t confirm whether the parts on the carburettor [found in Sudan] were manufactured by us,” he told The Irish Times. “We know there are a lot of fake Tillotson carburettors and parts in the market and would need to see the actual part to confirm whether it is genuine. I can confirm that to the best of our knowledge, all our carburettors are exported within all applicable regulations.”

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore answered a parliamentary question about the discovery of apparently Irish-made parts in the drone found in the Nuba Mountains. Gilmore said Ireland was a “strong supporter” of UN and EU initiatives aimed at restricting the flow of military equipment to Sudan, and he added that the Government is fully committed to compliance with these measures.

“I would be concerned if equipment manufactured in Ireland was being used by the military in operations against the civilian population,” he said. Gilmore noted that the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation is responsible for issuing licences in respect of exports of controlled goods and technology listed in the EU dual-use regulations and the EU military list.

“I am informed that no licences have been issued in the past four years in respect of controlled technology intended for export to either Sudan or to the Sudanese authorities,” he said.

Gilmore said his officials had brought the reports that Irish-made parts were found in the drone used in the Nuba Mountains to the attention of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.

That department has now investigated the matter, and issued the following statement. “Without access to all parts of the item identified in the Channel 4 documentary it is not possible to ascertain whether or not the component was made by the Irish company mentioned in recent media reports . . . It is considered its products are standard engineered products designed for small motors. These products do not fall within the categories of mandatory controlled products that require an export license before being exported from Ireland or the EU.

“However,” the statement continued, the department “has decided to impose additional reporting requirements in relation to exports of the above components to EU embargoed countries.”

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