At least 140 people were killed in a remote region of south Sudan, a UN official said on Thursday as aid agencies warned of a new civil war on the eve of the anniversary of a fragile peace deal between north and south.
Concern is mounting over stability in Sudan because Africa's largest nation, which is blessed by huge oil resources, faces a crucial political test this year -- its first general election in 24 years.
Ninety people were also wounded in the violence in Wunchuei region of the southern Warrap state over the past week, but the United Nations found out about the clashes only two days ago when a security team visited the area.
"This a matter for deep concern," said Lise Grande, the UN Deputy Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, adding that in addition to the casualties, 300,000 head of cattle were stolen.
UN peacekeepers were on their way to the area to investigate, she said.
The dead were from the Dinka people, and local sources suggested they were killed by a rival Nuer group but this claim could not be immediately confirmed.
The violence reinforced concerns expressed by 10 aid agencies which warned in a report that Sudan could plunge into fresh turmoil if the world community fails to salvage the North-South Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
The CPA -- which ended a devastating 22-year war between majority Muslim north Sudan and the mainly Christian and animist south -- enters its sixth year on Saturday.
It is meant to pave the way in April for Sudan's first multi-party elections in 24 years, with parliamentary and regional ballots held alongside a presidential vote, ahead of a referendum on southern independence in 2011.
The report, co-authored by Oxfam's Maya Mailer, said a lethal combination of rising violence, crippling poverty and political tensions has left the peace deal close to collapse.
"Last year saw a surge in violence in southern Sudan. This could escalate even further and become one of the biggest emergencies in Africa in 2010," Mailer said.
"It is not yet too late to avert disaster, but the next 12 months are a crossroads for Africa's largest country."
In 2009, some 2,500 people were killed and 350,000 fled their homes, a higher death toll than in war-torn Darfur over the same period.
The aid groups urged the UN Security Council to ensure that civilian protection becomes a priority of the United Nations Missions in Sudan (UNMIS) peacekeepers, warning that growing frustration over the lack of development was undermining peace.
US special representative to Sudan Scott Gration and prominent analyst Alex de Waal echoed these concerns.
"The country enters the final year of the CPA Interim Period, it may in fact be entering its final year as the nation that we have known," de Waal said on his blog on www.ssrc.org.
"The year 2010 may be the last year of (unified) Sudan," he said of the 2011 referendum.
Gration also said that 2010 "will be a critical year in securing a peaceful future for Sudan."
"Make no mistake, failure to make progress and a continuation of the unacceptable status quo by any party will be met by credible pressures from the United States and our partners in the international community," he said.
In December Sudan's parliament adopted a law setting up the planned 2011 referendum on southern independence as well as further legislation to govern a referendum in the disputed oil-rich region of Abyei.
The law on Abyei, which lies on the north-south border, is aimed at allowing residents to decide if they want to remain part of the north or join the south.
Sudan has oil reserves estimated at six billion barrels, and most deposits are on the border between north and south. Oil income accounts for 60 percent of revenue for the Khartoum government and 98 percent for the south.
Sudanese politicians hope for a gentlemen's agreement between the north and the south in case the referendum paves the way for independence, but the shadow of fresh armed conflict looms large over the war-wrecked country.