Satellite Sentinel Project Confirms Intentionally Burned Villages in Contested Abyei Region

WASHINGTON -- The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) has confirmed escalating violence in Sudan’s Abyei region, including the intentional burning of the villages of Maker Abior and Todach. The SSP report, “Flashpoint: Abyei,” has also documented a significant increase in military activity by apparent Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) operational in South Kordofan state, as well as apparent Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) buildup south of Abyei. The continuing militarization of this area, including evidence of battle tanks and other heavy equipment, has contributed to an already volatile situation.

George Clooney, who conceived of the Satellite Sentinel Project during an October trip to Southern Sudan with Enough Project Co-founder John Prendergast, stated:

“We have images nearly in real time of the deliberate destruction of a village in Abyei. We have warned for months that the match that could ignite the resumption of war between North and South Sudan resides in Abyei. It is critical that diplomatic efforts be intensified to prevent such an outcome.”

“The intentional destruction of Maker Abior just prior to the resumption of high-level negotiations between North and South demands an unambiguous response from the United States,” says Enough Project Co-Founder John Prendergast. “Anyone found responsible for this dramatic deterioration should be held accountable and subject to swift consequences. The Obama administration should suspend implementation of any incentives package linked to the North-South effort, in particular removal of Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List. Instead, the United States should intensify its peace efforts, and create a task force charged with developing a robust set of consequences for any Sudanese party that risks derailing progress toward peace.”

Given these alarming developments, it is urgent that Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party immediately assume responsibility for preventing armed actors that it has historically controlled from instigating violence, and that the United States and the international community move swiftly to impose consequences for all parties that undertake offensive military actions, commit human rights abuses, and put peace efforts at risk.

The SSP images, captured by DigitalGlobe, confirm the widely reported attacks on multiple villages in the Abyei region beginning Sunday, February 27. Sources on the ground report the fighting may have begun between armed Misseriya and southern police, but that elements of the Popular Defense Force militias, historically supported by the Sudanese Armed Forces, participated in the attacks. Maker Abior was previously the scene of fighting just prior to the South Sudan referendum in early January. The fighting, as well as rumors of movement toward Abyei Town, has triggered the flight of much of the civilian population southward toward Agok, with tens of thousands displaced according to Médecins Sans Frontières.

SSP has also documented clear increases in military capacity by SAF and SPLA in areas around Abyei, including heavy equipment transport and tanks at a known SAF outpost in Kharassana, a new suspected SAF position near Heglig, and a rapid build-out of suspected SPLA encampment in Unity State during the past month.

“In recent months we have seen a dramatic worsening of conflict in Darfur, and in recent weeks escalating violence in flashpoint regions on the border between North and South, including Abyei,” says Enough Project Executive Director John Bradshaw. “Given a consistent pattern of escalating violence against civilians, the United States and its international partners should be prepared to uphold the international Responsibility to Protect doctrine as they press forward for peace throughout Sudan.”

“Today, the Satellite Sentinel Project has done what it was created to do: detect threats to civilians in near real time,” said Charlie Clements, MD, Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Director of Human Rights Documentation for SSP. “Now it is up to the international community to quickly use this evidence to turn detection into deterrence.”

“In the wake of historic events across North Africa and the Middle East, there has been universal condemnation of governments that employ mass violence against their own populations,” said Prendergast. “The bold and swift response of the Obama administration and UN Security Council to the crisis in Libya, which in a matter of days employed a strong set of unilateral and multilateral pressures should create a new template for how the U.S. and broader international community respond to human rights violators in Sudan.”

View or download DigitalGlobe satellite images from our latest report, "Flashpoint: Abyei."

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About the Satellite Sentinel Project

The Satellite Sentinel Project combines satellite imagery analysis and field reports with Google’s Map Maker to deter the resumption of full-scale war between North and South Sudan. Not On Our Watch provided seed money to launch the Satellite Sentinel Project. The Enough Project contributes field reports and policy analysis, and, together with Not On Our Watch and our Sudan Now partners, pressures policymakers by urging the public to act. UNOSAT analyzes satellite images and collaborates with Google and Trellon to design the web platform. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative provides research and leads the collection, human rights analysis, and corroboration of on-the-ground reports that contextualizes the imagery. DigitalGlobe provides satellite imagery and additional analysis.