Sudan's Civil War Looking Less Civil MEDDLING NEIGHBORS?

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Rebels trying to overthrow Sudan's Islamic regime are posing one of the biggest challenges in 13 years of civil war, thanks to new ties with the northern opposition and some apparent help from outside friends.

In the last three weeks, the rebels have swept through more than 10 towns. Wednesday, they reported they had captured two towns less than 20 miles from the strategic Roseires Dam, although the report couldn't be independently confirmed.

The gains appear to be fruits of an alliance formed last year between Arab northern opposition groups and the black Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which since 1983 has been fighting to keep Khartoum from clamping the hand of Islam on the animist and Christian south. Analysts in the region believe that what has also helped the rebel onslaught is the military aid from Sudan's hostile neighbors Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda. "Reports indicate that foreign aid is vital," says Norman Aphane, assistant editor of the Pretoria-based quarterly Africa Inside. The 30 million people of Sudan - which is about the size of the United States east of the Mississippi - have been at war with each other on and off since independence from Britain in 1956. Sudan is composed of about 550 ethnic groups that speak 100 languages. Culturally, it is almost two separate countries: the Islamic north and the black south. The southern SPLA rebels, led by John Garang, are fighting for more autonomy from the Islamic north and for potential oil revenue to remain in the impoverished south, rather than being diverted to the north. The new fighting, which is spreading quickly along a 390-mile front, poses the biggest challenge yet to the Islamic government, which seized power from an elected one in 1989. Most of new offensive, which began on Jan. 12, has been in the east near the Eritrean and Ethiopian borders. But Sunday, Sudan said it had attacked a rebel base near the southern border with Uganda. While analysts believe another front may be opening, the rebels deny it. Eritrea, Uganda, and Ethiopia deny claims by Khartoum that they are taking part in the fighting. But the trio make no secret of its enmity toward the Islamic extremist government of Sudan's President Omar Bashir, which the US considers to be a sponsor of international terrorism. Eritrea and Ethiopia have accused Sudan of sending commandos across the border to attack on their soil. Uganda has repeatedly complained about Sudan giving support to Ugandan rebels. …