Nearly 100 civilians have been killed in Sudan’s disputed Abyei region since the northern military seized it on May 21, an Abyei official says, citing a preliminary count. South Sudan is scheduled to break off into its own country on July 9, and the status of the fertile, oil-producing Abyei area has remained one of the most contentious issues in the countdown to independence.
Khartoum sparked an international outcry when it moved tanks and troops into Abyei’s main town on May 21, the day after an attack on a convoy of northern soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers that was blamed on southern forces, Reuters reports. “We are waiting for final confirmation with names, but the toll is close to 100 people, not more,” Abyei chief administrator Deng Arop Kuol told Reuters.
Civilian death tolls are often politically sensitive in Sudan, which was ravaged by decades of civil war, and it was not possible to verify the figures independently. “These are civilians. Some died during the attack, some in SAF (Sudanese Armed Forces) patrols in the days after,” Kuol added, referring to the northern military by its formal name.
A spokesman for the northern army was not immediately available to comment on the report, but a senior official with the north’s ruling National Congress Party denied the army had attacked civilians. “This is incorrect,” Rabie Abdelati, a senior official at the information ministry, said. “I do not think the SAF attack or target civilians”. The northern army entered Abyei because of a provocation by southern forces, he added.
Tensions mounted in Abyei after an attack on northern troops and U.N. peacekeepers blamed on southern forces on May 20. Khartoum took control of Abyei’s main town the next day. Tens of thousands of people fled the fighting, and the move raised fears the two sides could return to war, which could have a devastating impact on the region by sending refugees back across borders and creating a failed state in the south.
Khartoum has defied calls by the United Nations, the United States and south Sudanese officials to withdraw, saying the land belongs to the north. Southern officials have so far tried to downplay tensions over Abyei. South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir said last week the south would not go to war over the territory.