Yassir Arman (second left), Secretary General of SPLM NORTH. On his left is the highest ranking POW – a Colonel in the Sudan Armed Forces – at State House Entebbe on Sunday
In July 2016, a Red Cross plane touched down at an airfield in the rebel–held territory of South Kordofan located along the border of South Sudan and Sudan-Khartoum.
This area, thrice the size of Uganda, is under the control of the SPLM-North.
The SPLM-N was founded by organizations of the predominantly South Sudanese Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army that remained in Sudan following the South Sudanese vote for independence in 2011.
Residents of South Kordofan and Blue Nile hoped to become citizens of the new nation but were excluded from the peace deal.
Despite the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, a low-level conflict continued in Sudan, with the Movement’s armed branch engaging in an active insurgency against the government of Bashir.
This Red Cross flight was part of a highly classified military operation being overseen by three regional leaders – Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Sudan’s Omar Bashir and South Sudan president, Gen Salva Kiir.
Senior army officers and intelligence chiefs in the three countries were closely monitoring what was codenamed Operation Goodwill which has been kept a top secret for the last five years.
At least 130 Sudanese army officers including a Colonel and civilians held as prisoners of war by SPLM-North were expected to board the Red Cross plane.
This was after the collapse of 15 international community-mediated peace talks to have the prisoners released.
It remains unclear why the rebels refused to hand over the prisoners.
Efforts to reach Uganda’s Red Cross officials were futile on Monday morning as our calls went unanswered. But sources say this could have been a result of mistrust and logistical challenges.
“Negotiations between enemies are very delicate and collapse anytime,” said a source who participated in the negotiations.
“Museveni had to be very careful. The refugees had to be gathered and assembled to locations but this was not realised as expected.”
Efforts by governments of Qatar, Ethiopia and several others to rescue the POWs had all bore no fruit.
Yassir Arman (L), Sudan Ambassador to Uganda
“The most recent failure was in July 2017 when at the last minute when the Red Cross plane even landed to pick them but misunderstandings spoilt everything,” said our source who preferred anonymity so as to speak freely.
In Uganda, the operation was kept a top secret known by only President Museveni, former Chief of Defence Forces Gen Katumba Wamala, ex Special Forces Commander (SFC) Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, Director General ESO Ambassador Joseph Ochwet, Col. Geoffrey Karugaba of Military Police and Major Allan Matsiko of Special Forces.
Unlike other rebel movements that could be bullied or threatened to heed to the demands of regional leaders, the SPLM-North is an experienced and powerful fighting force that has kept Bashir on the edge for many years.
The Movement has heavy weaponry such as tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft weapons.
“The operation was very complex and sensitive,” recalls the source.
The Sudan government was also holding hostage SPLM-North fighters and had killed one of the Movement’s top commanders, Brigadier Ahmed Hajana in 2011.
Secondly, the SPLM North controls a vast area between South Sudan and Sudan. The area under SPLM North is about thrice the size of Uganda.
The rebel group which broke away from SPLM following the death of Garang, is fighting for the liberation of the whole of Sudan – not just secession.
Despite several failures to secure the release of Sudanese prisoners, Museveni did not give up.
He would later telephone President Salva Kiir to use the South Sudan territory to execute the mission.
Out of his skills, Museveni managed to persuade the rebels to free the prisoners.
“The rebels have shown magnanimity and are ready for peace,” said the source.
It’s widely held that Museveni wants SPLM-North to lay down weapons and make peace with Khartoum.
This would end the rebellion against Bashir whom many believe has been stoking tensions in South Sudan through former Vice President Dr Riek Machar.
It will be recalled that Museveni armed SPLA/M to fight Bashir who was actively funneling arms to Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
To Bashir, this northern military front against Museveni’s government would drain the nation’s resources and undermine his presidency.
To further weaken Museveni, Bashir is said to have supported the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) to open another front in Western Uganda.
However, both rebel movements were defeated by the UPDF.
The secession of South Sudan from Sudan-Khartoum provided Uganda a security buffer against Uganda.
This meant Bashir could no longer use his Antanov planes to bomb northern Uganda. Juba could not allow such missions.
This put Bashir in an uncomfortable position. As if this was enough, Museveni had immense influence in South Sudan affairs through President Salva Kiir, unsettling Bashir.
Matters were worsened by the Heglig Crisis during which a brief war was fought between Sudan and South Sudan in 2012 over oil-rich regions between South Sudan’s Unity and Sudan’s South Kordofan states.
South Sudan invaded and briefly occupied the small border town of Heglig before being pushed back by the Sudanese army.
Small-scale clashes continued until an agreement on borders and natural resources was signed on September 26, 2012, resolving most aspects of the conflict.
The conflict saw Sudan Armed Forces register huge casualties, sparking fear in Khartoum about the possible involvement of Israel and United States.
Bashir’s main man in Juba was Machar who was not seeing eye to eye with Kiir. The bad blood compelled Kiir to dismiss Machar, triggering an unprecedented bloodshed in 2013.
South Sudan oil exports dwindled, affecting Sudan’s economy.
The dispute between the two counties over transit fees charged to South Sudan by the Sudanese government led to a suspension on oil production with former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Sudan, Badr al-Din Mahmoud, claiming his country lost approximately US$5bn as a result.
From the security and economic perspectives, it was in the interest of Bashir to make peace with South Sudan and Museveni.
Museveni in a group photograph with the released POWs
Still, Museveni and Kiir would benefit from a stable Sudan if they helped Bashir address his security and economic fears.
Uganda lost millions of dollars in cross border trade in the aftermath of the December 2013 war in South Sudan. Kiir’s government has equally been running on the edge of bankruptcy.
The need to realise common interests would later bring all the three leaders on a round table. They exchanged visits to boost both diplomatic and commercial ties.
That’s when Museveni tipped Bashir that he could help him secure the release of Sudanese prisoners of war.
Indeed, the prisoners were last week freed by the rebels before being flown to Entebbe Airbase.
“I know there are talks going on in Addis, in Doha but I asked President Bashir if I could help him quietly and he accepted,” said Museveni during the ceremony at State House Entebbe on Sunday to repatriate the released Sudanese soldiers.
“I called President Salva Kiir to allow the operation use South Sudan territory and he consented,” Museveni added at the emotional function.
Tears uncontrollably flowed down the former prisoners’ faces, with many expressing joy at the prospect of returning home after six years in captivity.
Many couldn’t believe they would return home alive.
The State House luncheon was attended by Yassir Arman, Sudan Ambassador to Uganda, ESO chief Ochwet and intelligence officials.
It is hoped Bashir will equally release the SPLM-North prisoners of war and create conditions for regional trade and security to thrive.
At around 7:00pm, the released Sudanese prisoners of war quietly boarded the Ethiopian Airline at Entebbe Airbase before returning home.
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