Armed looters set fire to parts of Sudan’s disputed Abyei border town on Monday, the United Nations said, days after north Sudanese troops seized it, pushing the north and south closer to conflict.
North Sudan’s army vowed to hold all the territory it took, defying demands from the U.N. Security Council and drawing sharp criticism from the United States and other world powers. South Sudan accused Khartoum of trying to provoke war and prevent the oil-rich south from becoming an independent country after it voted to break away from the north in a January referendum agreed under a 2005 peace deal.
Analysts fear north-south fighting over Abyei could reignite a full blown conflict in Sudan, a move that could have a devastating impact on the surrounding region. Both Sudan’s mostly Muslim north and the south, where most follow Christian and traditional beliefs, claim the fertile, oil-producing Abyei border region. Ownership was not settled in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war.
Abyei remains the biggest point of contention in the build-up to the secession of the south, due to take place on July 9. The northern army sent tanks into Abyei on Saturday, the United Nations said, after weeks of growing tension and accusations of skirmishes by both sides.
Thousands of people fled, leaving Abyei town empty, while food supplies have also been disrupted, the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said. A U.N. official said fighting seemed to be over in Abyei town, but staff at a peacekeeping base could hear occasional gunshots.
The U.N. Mission (UNMIS) “strongly condemns the burning and looting currently being perpetrated by armed elements in Abyei town,” said U.N. spokesman Kouider Zerrouk. U.N. Security Council envoys visiting Sudan, who earlier demanded the north withdraw, met the southern government in the southern capital Juba on Monday.
The United States said it would find it hard to drop Sudan from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list if North Sudan continues to occupy Abyei, U.S. special envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman said on Monday. Sudan, who used to host the late Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, has been on the list since 1993. Even China, a major trading partner of the north, expressed concern after the escalation in Abyei. “China expresses concern about the clashes that have recently happened in Sudan’s Abyei region,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement, hoping both sides would solve the issue through dialogue.
NORTH VOWS TO STAY
North Sudanese officials said they had no plans to leave the territory. “We are going to stay in Abyei until there is a different decision,” northern Defence Minister Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein told parliament in Khartoum in a speech interrupted by calls of “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) from many deputies.
“Free citizens, your armed forces will hold all areas which the laws and agreements entrust to it. They will work on establishing peace and stability so the government can reach a solution and accord to ensure security and stability in the region,” the northern army told state media late on Sunday. North Sudan says it sent in troops to clear out southern soldiers who it said had broken agreements by entered the area.
But the south, where 75 percent of the country’s 500,000 barrels a day oil production comes from, Sudan said Khartoum was trying to provoke a war. “What Khartoum is trying to do now is not just occupy Abyei, they want us not to get to 9th of July,” said Anne Itto, deputy secretary general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). “What they want is for us to react and drag the whole of Sudan to war, but we will not give them that joy of taking us back to war,” she said in London.
Around 100 southerners protested in Juba against the northern military action in Abyei, holding up banners that described it as an invasion, witnesses said. “It is hopefully not the beginning of a wider conflict but it has the potential for it,” said analyst Roger Middleton from London’s Chatham House.
“Abyei is important to north and south. There is oil, grazing land and emotional reasons. Many leaders in the SPLM (the south’s ruling party) come from Abyei,” he said. Southerners overwhelmingly voted to declare independence from the north in a January referendum promised in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
The same 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 on who was qualified to vote. The last civil war killed an estimated 2 million people and forced around 4 million to flee, many of them to countries neighbouring Sudan. Analysts say there is a risk Abyei fighting could spread to other parts of Sudan, particularly the surrounding region of South Kordifan, also hit by north-south tensions.