JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - South Sudanese are abandoning north-south border villages fearing aerial attacks from the northern army, with at least 1,500 fleeing after recent attacks, U.N. and southern officials said on Monday.
Southerners are expected to choose to separate from the north in a January referendum and form Africa's newest nation on July 9; the climax of a 2005 peace deal that ended a civil war which claimed 2 million lives.
Tensions have escalated throughout November as southerners began to register to vote. An "accidental bombing" of southern territory by northern forces was followed by a helicopter attack on a southern army base in the same area, wounding soldiers and civilians.
The north denied the second attack but southerners living near the remote border sites in Northern Bahr al-Ghazal state are leaving in droves.
"We have verified a first group of 1,500 people who left the border area (in Northern Bahr al-Ghazal) between November 16-22," said Giovanni Bosco, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Southern Sudan.
"People are leaving their villages because of the military tensions in the area," said Bosco, who added that there was no formal camp set up to receive the new arrivals, but the United Nations was helping the local community feed them.
Officials in the area say they have received "hundreds" of additional arrivals in just the last few days, and some reports put the number of overall displaced much higher.
"The report we received says 2,500 have been displaced in the area," said southern army (SPLA) spokesman Philip Aguer.
Northern government officials were unavailable for comment on the reports.
The SPLA says northern forces are still flying fighter planes along the border to scare southern villagers.
"Khartoum's newly-acquired Chinese planes are flying in the ... area," Aguer told Reuters. "They are trying to cause terror and disrupt the referendum."
Relations between north and south Sudan have threatened to boil over in the build-up to the southern vote. Sudan's economy depends on oil, located mostly in the south, and Khartoum does not want to lose an important source of revenue.