Khartoum — The United States (U.S.) accused the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army North (SPLM-N) on Wednesday of recruiting soldiers from among children and civilians in a refugee camp inside South Sudan, urging the insurgents halt to the unlawful practice which they categorically denied.
Anne Richard, U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, told reporters after visiting Yida refugee camp in South Sudan that they asked the rebels not to use it as a center for recruitment of soldiers especially children.
"[We] have asked them to please not use the camp, which is supposed to be civilian, as a centre for R&R [rest and relaxation] or for recruitment of soldiers," she said. "Especially we've asked that they not take children to serve as soldiers on the other side of the border."
The 16-month armed conflict between the Sudanese government and the SPLM-N in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states has so far driven more than 175,000 Sudanese to flee their homes and seek refuge across the borders with South Sudan.
According to UN figures, Yida is home to more than 60,000 Sudanese refugees especially from the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan. The camp is located in Unity State with fewer than 15 miles separating it from the disputed borders with Sudan.
Richard said she saw uniformed military men during a visit to Yida last week but she did not confirm their identity.
"That's not the way refugee camps for civilians are meant to be run," she told reporters. "We had reports at the mid to end of September, reports that recruitment was going on [although] my understanding is that some of that has subsided."
The Sudanese government, which has been blocking aid from reaching SPLM-N controlled areas for fears it would fall into the hands of the insurgents, repeatedly accused the SPLM-N of using refugee camps in South Sudan as an R&R base for their soldiers.
But the rebels strongly denied the charge, inviting any independent body to visit their areas and investigate their compliance with international laws in recruiting fighters.
"This accusation is not true, and we deny it in details and in its entirety." SPLM-N's spokesperson Arnu Loddi told Sudan Tribune over the phone on Thursday.
Loddi said that his group is ready to open its controlled areas to "any independent body" that wants to investigate the ages of our soldiers.
"On the contrary, we opened schools for children in our areas and we continue to protect them from the aerial bombardment campaign that is happening amid the silence of the international community" he added.
The spokesperson insisted that the SPLM-N has no regular presence in Yida and that their soldiers who were seen there were just visiting their families.
"We don't have a presence in Yida. We are present in our areas and we comply with our law and the international law which provides that any recruit must be over 18 years old to be accepted"
Fighting in South Kordofan has been escalating since Sudan and South Sudan signed a security deal last month to establish a buffer demilitarized zone along their unmarked 1800-km common borders and cease support for rebels groups in each other's territories.
Khartoum says the security deal binds Juba to stop supporting SPLM-N rebels who fought as part of South Sudan army during the north-south civil war before the south declared independence in July last year.
The UN says a total of 908,000 people has been displaced and severely affected by the conflict in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.