South Sudan flag

Khartoum - An airlift of up to 15 000 ethnic South Sudanese began on Monday from Khartoum, an AFP correspondent said.

The first plane chartered by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) took off at 0615 GMT carrying around 160 South Sudanese, some of whom have spent their entire lives in the north.

They are among a group of 12 000-15 000 South Sudanese who have been waiting for transport South from the Kosti way-station 300 kilometres from Khartoum.

Kosti became home to the biggest single concentration of South Sudanese awaiting transport South, with many living in makeshift shelters or barn-like buildings for up to a year.

The governor of the Kosti area declared the migrants a security threat and initially gave them a May 5 deadline to leave, sparking concern from the United Nations and the IOM which has already helped thousands of South Sudanese to head South.

Officials extended the deadline to May 20 but then told the IOM to disregard the time limit after plans for the airlift were devised.

“It is my first time to the South. I was born here,” Cecilia Peter, 27, said through a translator as she lined up for a boarding pass with her five tiny children.

Peter said the family had spent 13 months in Kosti, after losing her job as a teacher.

All ethnic Southerners were dismissed from Sudan's civil service ahead of South Sudan's independence last July under a peace deal that ended 22 years of civil war which killed two million people and drove many more to the north.

The South Sudanese in Kosti are among about 350 000 ethnic Southerners who the South Sudanese embassy estimates remain in the north after an April 8 deadline for them to either formalise their status or leave Sudan.

Hundreds of thousands of others have already gone to South Sudan.

Asked whether she could not get documentation to stay in the north, Peter said simply, “No.” Passengers on the IOM flights do not require individual travel documents.

Peter said her husband will accompany the family's luggage by truck to Renk, just over the border in South Sudan. Luggage is a big concern for the returnees, who want to bring as much as possible to the poverty-stricken South.

Adelino Jovida, 31, also lost his government job, as a policeman in Gedaref state, and then spent 11 months in Kosti.

He said he came to northern Sudan from the South in 1983 - when he was about as young as the small child sitting in his lap. His wife and their other infant sat beside him, in the waiting room of the airport terminal normally used by people travelling to Mecca for the hajj.

Although this is his first trip back to the South he said, unsmiling, “I'm happy to be able to see my relatives again.”

The travellers included the very young as well as the very old. One woman in a blue floral shawl shuffled through the terminal in yellow sandals, with a long wooden walking stick.

The IOM said all the Southerners in Kosti were dependent on assistance from the international community for food, water, health care and other essential services and most did not have their own means to arrange transportation.

Jill Helke, who heads the IOM in Sudan, said a second flight may take more Southerners to Juba later on Monday.

Initial plans had called for six flights a day, but the aircraft and crews have been delayed in arriving, she said.

Even with six daily flights the airlift would require about two weeks to move all the Kosti Southerners, who are first bused to Khartoum.

The IOM had plans for transporting thousands of people from Kosti by barge but Sudan's military expressed security concerns.

Since late March, Sudan and South Sudan have been fighting along their border, in what the United Nations termed a serious threat to international peace and security.

A UN Security Council resolution on May 2 ordered both sides to cease hostilities and to resume by May 16 negotiations on unresolved issues including the status of each country's nationals in the other country. - Sapa-AFP