A south Sudanese government minister resigned accusing Khartoum of war crimes after the northern army seized the disputed Abyei border region, forcing thousands to flee.
The announcement raised political tensions after Sudan’s northern army moved tanks into Abyei town, the area’s main settlement, on Saturday, sparking an international outcry.
Both north and south Sudan claim Abyei, and the dispute has become more pressing in the countdown to the secession of south Sudan, expected to take place in July, Reuters reports.
Analysts are watching how the south will react, fearing further north-south fighting over Abyei, which has oil and grazing land, could reignite a full-blown conflict that would disrupt the already fragile region.
Sudan cabinet affairs minister, Luka Biong, a southerner, told Reuters he was no longer willing to work in a coalition government with the northern ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
“These are real war crimes. I have never seen such suffering. Houses are burnt in Abyei town and south of it,” Biong said.
Southern officials on Monday accused the north of trying to provoke a new civil war. Sudan’s last north/south conflict ended in a 2005 peace deal that allowed southerners to vote overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum in January.
U.N. officials said between 15,000 and 20,000 people fled Abyei, many of them heading to Agok, just over the southern border.
“We are concerned … about the grave humanitarian consequences of what’s transpired in Abyei. There have been horrific reports of looting and burning,” said Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visiting the southern capital Juba.
A U.N. official said some aid agencies had started to arrive in Agok but access remained difficult due to insecurity and bad infrastructure. Aid officials visited Agok on Monday but gunfire erupted as they met local leaders, cutting short the mission, said the official.
Khartoum has defied calls by the U.N. Security Council and world powers to withdraw its forces from Abyei, saying it needed to clear out southern soldiers who it said had broken agreements by entering the area. The south denies this.
The African Union said former South African President Thabo Mbeki had met with Sudan’s President Bashir and southern President Salva Kiir to try and resolve the crisis.
Both “reaffirmed their willingness to work out modalities for the withdrawal of all the unauthorised forces from the Abyei area,” the AU said in a statement. It did not specify which troops counted as 2unauthorised forces.”
Abyei remains the most contentious point in the build-up to the secession of the south, the source of 75 percent of the country’s 500,000 barrels a day oil production.
The 2005 peace deal also promised Abyei residents their own referendum over whether to join the north or south, but that never took place as neither side could agree who was qualified to vote.
The 2005 peace deal created a coalition government dominated by Bashir’s NCP and the former southern rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), headed by Kiir. This is due to be dissolved on the secession of the south which currently has its own semi-autonomous government.