Sudan's northern army seized control of the disputed, oil-producing Abyei region, officials said on Sunday, forcing thousands to flee and bringing the country's north and south to the brink of full conflict.
Abyei---The northern Sudanese Army took control of the city Abyei on May 19, after three days of clashes with southern forces. South Sudan is due to become independent in July, but Abyei is still claimed by both sides. Khartoum said it had moved in because the south's Sudan People's Liberation Army was trying to enforce its presence in the town, in violation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA. This agreement, which ended 22 years of devastating civil war between the north and south, requires both sides to keep their troops out until a vote to determine its future. South Sudan consequently has warned the north's 'illegal occupation' of Abyei risks tipping the country back to full-scale civil war.
The situation in Abyei region has worsened with armed looters setting fires in abandoned towns. The main town is nearly deserted. Residents and humanitarian groups fled and northern troops dug in for what could be a prolonged conflict with southern forces. Thousands of those displaced by the fighting arrived in neighboring areas to the south, where schools were converted into shelters. Some took to the streets to protest what they called an "unjustified invasion" of Abyei by northern forces.
John Ajang was among those who fled on foot with his family ahead of the fighting. The Christian cattle herder walked two dozen miles south to the nearest town, Agok. It took him more than eight hours. He traveled Saturday with his two children on his back, sometimes carrying his sick wife as well.
"I saw on Friday over 45 tanks belonging to the northern army," Ajang said.
"They brought all their troops nearby from the oil fields because they want more oil."
A United Nations Security Council delegation visiting Sudan, who earlier demanded that the north withdraw from Abyei, were expected to meet the southern government in the southern capital, Juba. More than 100 people demonstrated in Juba before the meeting, chanting against the northern takeover of Abyei and against President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir. However, neither Foreign Minister Ali Karti, who was expected to lead discussions, nor Vice President Ali Osman Taha was present.
“We are trying to solve the remaining issues and remove tensions in Abyei and pursue a peaceful solution for Abyei,” Bashir said.
Fighting in Abyei has pitted the former civil war enemies against each other since January when the district was due to vote on its future alongside a referendum on independence for the south which delivered a landslide for secession. The plebiscite was postponed indefinitely as the north and south disagreed on who should be eligible to vote in an area where conflicted loyalties and land disputes keep tensions high.
Due to rising upheavals in the region, The United Nations Security Council has cancelled a visit to Abyei citing one of their reasons being that the government forces launched an offensive, capturing the main town, Abyei. Further, a U.N. compound was hit by mortar fire, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council called for an immediate end to the violence. Spokeswoman Hua Jiang said staff at the UN compound had taken shelter in bunkers at the height of the attack; Northern Sudanese forces had taken control of the town of Abyei after a day of heavy shelling.
Abyei sits on Sudan's ill-defined north-south border and is claimed by both halves of the country. In many ways it is a microcosm of all the conflicts that have split Sudan for decades an explosive mix of ethnic tension, ambiguous boundaries, oil and age-old suspicion and resentment. Abyei also contains rich pastureland, water and, after a recent re-drawing of its boundary, one significant oilfield, Defra, part of a block run by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), a consortium led by China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). Northerners and southerners fought hard over it during decades of civil war and have continued to clash there even after the 2005 peace deal that ended the war and set up the referendum.
The United States says Sudan’s seizure of much of the disputed Abyei region jeopardizes the country’s north-south peace accord of 2005 and complicates efforts at normalizing U.S.-Sudan relations. The U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan is making a crisis visit to the country this week. The State Department is condemning the May 19 attack on Sudanese troops by southern forces that apparently triggered the latest crisis.
Under the 2005 peace deal, Abyei had a special administrative status, governed by an administration made up of officials from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's northern National Congress Party (NCP). Despite going to the polls where South Sudan voted to become independent in the January 2011 referendum, tensions have built up in the oil-producing Abyei region where both sides have set up forces. However President Omar Hassan al-Bashir had said last month that Abyei would remain part of the north after the south secedes in July.
Southern Sudan is mainly animist and Christian and its people are ethnically linked to sub-Saharan Africa. The north is mostly Muslim, and many residents consider themselves Arabs. The south voted in January to secede, and is scheduled to become independent July 9.