* U.S. warns of looming famine in region; Sudan denies
By Alexander Dziadosz
TALODI, Sudan, April 13 (Reuters) - With a roar, an excavator shudders to
life and plows into the dry ground outside this war-scarred Sudanese town,
drawing cries of "Allahu akbar" from the Kalashnikov-armed soldiers nearby.
The one km-long (0.6-mile) earth dam being built here will have an unusually
broad set of uses, officials say.
Not only will it protect the town from floods and irrigate land, it will
deter rebels who have persistently assaulted the strategic spot.
"It will be a natural barrier so that there will be no attacks from this
area," said Ibrahim Abdullah Abdelkarim, the South Kordofan border state's
minister of urban planning and public utilities, during a
government-organised tour of Talodi.
Wearing camouflage military fatigues, Abdelkarim gestured to rocky hills
from which seasonal rains pour into the savanna.
"This is the idea, to make a project that has so many functions," he said,
speaking fluent English.
It's unclear how effective the dam would actually be in holding back the
insurgents, who claim they are fighting for their survival and reportedly
are backed by artillery and tanks, but there is no question the town could
use the development.
Fighting between Sudan and South Sudan this week has brought the two closer
to a resumption of full-blown conflict after the south seceded last year
under a peace deal that ended decades of civil war between north and south.
Talodi, about 50 km from Sudan's ill-defined border with South Sudan, is
mostly stick huts and one-storey brick buildings. Its economy depends
largely on agricultural products like honey, local officials say.
A small patch of grass and a few trees qualify as a public park for its
roughly 30,000 residents.
Now, with violence convulsing Sudan's southern border regions, life in
places like Talodi is only getting harder.
Construction of a road to the state capital Kadugli was halted after rebels
attacked it and took the machinery, Sudanese officials said.
A brick marketplace to replace Talodi's ramshackle souk of stick and
corrugated-iron sheeting stands unfinished. Even the small power station is
shut down, its fuel tanks charred by what officials said was rebel shelling
in a major assault last month.
Khartoum seizes on such instances to allege that the rebels, desperate for
attention and cheap victories, are trying to force residents from their
homes and disrupt normal life.
"For a week they tried to capture the town, but they failed," said South
Kordofan state governor Ahmed Haroun, who is wanted by the International
Criminal Court on charges of war crimes in Darfur, allegations which he
dismisses as political.
"When they felt they had failed they began shelling into the town, targeting
civilians and other places."
Rebels say their aim is just the opposite: to win their ethnic minority
communities greater political and economic sway in Sudan's political and
economic power structure, which they complain has long been dominated by an
Voicing those grievances, many people in South Kordofan - particularly in
the Nuba Mountains region - joined southern rebels against Khartoum during
Sudan's decades-long civil war.
But the 2005 peace deal that ended the war and paved the way for the
country's partition last year left the Nuba Mountains and other former rebel
territories north of the border. Fighting reignited in South Kordofan a
month before South Sudan seceded.
The conflict has since become a cause célèbre for Sudan activists including
Hollywood actor George Clooney, who snuck into South Kordofan illegally and
released a YouTube video about the visit last month.
The United States and others have warned of impending famine in the region -
which Sudan denies - and the United Nations estimates that more than 410,000
people have fled their homes in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, another border
Regardless of who is to blame, the fighting has obviously hit Talodi hard.
About two thirds of the town's residents fled the fighting, the local
commissioner said. Much of it still looks empty, with soldiers outnumbering
civilians in places.
Troops in green uniforms filled the market, chatting and drinking tea at
corner shops as women from the local Nuba tribe dressed in brightly coloured
shawls shopped at the few stores that were still open.
Several people in the market, interviewed amid a heavy security presence,
described intense fighting. "We were working in this office and then, 'Boom,
boom, boom!'" Teya Hamed, a government worker, said, pointing to a nearby
Mohammed Suleiman stood near his shop, which he said was damaged during the
fighting. "A rocket hit the shop only five minutes after I left it," he
Khartoum heavily restricts access for foreign journalists and aid agencies
to conflict areas, making the full impact of war hard to independently
That excavators and bulldozers are going to work in Talodi at all is meant
to signify the Sudanese government's confidence in its grip on the volatile
area after repulsing rebels.
But conflict between Sudan and South Sudan has revived in recent weeks and
South Sudan's seizure of the Heglig oilfield, about 100 km southwest of T a
lodi, has touched a nerve.
The field accounted for about half of Sudan's 115,000 barrel-a-day oil
output and its loss is another blow to an economy already struggling with
rising food prices and a currency depreciating sharply on the black market.
Still, Sudanese officials dismiss the notion that outside intervention will
be needed to avert mass starvation in the region. "Our government has enough
resources for any humanitarian interventions. We can make it alone," Haroun
As illustration of this control, officials point to projects like a new
1,800-m (yard) bitumen airstrip which the government started building in
Talodi last November.
Like the earth dam, it, too, has a dual civilian and military function which
Abdelkarim, the state minister, said was necessary to ensure the development
"You have to make a project that could defend itself or the city besides the
other uses," he said. "Without defence, it will not be useful, because it
could be attacked at any time." (Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by