JUBA, Sudan — Only six years ago the Sudan People's Liberation Army was a ragtag group of guerrilla fighters battling a bloody civil war with Sudan's north. On Saturday, when the south breaks away and becomes the world's newest country, the SPLA becomes a national army.
The United States is investing tens of millions of dollars into this fledgling military, one that is massing troops on the internal north-south border as tensions — and violence — with the north rise. SPLA troops are battling rebel militias in hot spots around the south, and fears of renewed war with the north remain high.
But international rights groups say those soldiers have been responsible for human rights abuses, including killings.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who sponsored a law that prohibits the United States from giving assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights, says he is concerned about reports of abuses.
The State Department is giving nearly $100 million in yearly assistance to train and support the SPLA, and it says it is monitoring the behavior of the former guerrilla fighters. But monitoring the 140,000-plus-member army of a developing nation the size of Texas is a nearly impossible task.
In April, a battalion of SPLA commandos — the most highly trained of the SPLA's fighters — fired on unarmed men, women and children during an attack on a rival ethnic group at a remote Nile River village in Jonglei state, killing or wounding hundreds of civilians, according to a U.N. report.
After an inquiry from Congress, the State Department investigated and found that no U.S. assistance is being given to the two commanders named in the U.N. report or to the commando unit as a whole. The State Department said it would exclude those involved from receiving future assistance until an investigation proves they were not involved in violations.
"The Leahy law serves a vital purpose in seeking to ensure that U.S. aid does not go to foreign military and police forces who commit heinous crimes," Leahy told the Associated Press. "I am concerned with the reports of abuses by southern Sudanese troops and expect the law to be applied vigorously and consistently."
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on Thursday released a report that urged the new southern government to prosecute and prevent abuses by southern security forces.
The report noted that since the south's independence vote in January, "soldiers have been responsible for grave human rights abuses, including unlawful killings of civilians and looting and destruction of civilian property."
Since Sudan's decades-long civil war ended in 2005, the U.S. government has given more money than any other to programs aimed at professionalizing the SPLA. According to research by the Open Society Foundations, the Obama administration is requesting nearly $160 million in assistance to the armed forces in southern Sudan for fiscal 2012.