An international court redrew the boundaries of Sudan’s disputed oil-producing Abyei region, ceding key oilfields to north Sudan in a decision hailed as a resolution to a long-standing territorial conflict.
Leaders from north and south Sudan pledged to respect the ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague as more than 1000 people danced through the streets of Abyei to celebrate the decision.
But analysts said there was still a risk of a return to conflict over the central Abyei district, as the implications of the complex Hague ruling sank in among northern and southern supporters and communities who live in the area.
The borders of Abyei were one of the most sensitive issues left undecided in a 2005 peace accord that ended more than two decades of civil war between Sudan’s mostly Christian south and its Muslim north.
The north’s dominant National Congress Party (NCP) rejected one boundary drawn up by a panel of experts later in 2005.
Tensions mounted until northern and southern troops clashed in Abyei town in May last year, killing up to 100 people and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee.
Both sides later agreed to refer the issue to The Hague court which decided to adjust the boundaries drawn up by the 2005 panel, pulling in its borders to the north, east and west.
Maps of the new boundary published in The Hague leave the area’s key Heglig and Bamboo oilfields outside Abyei, placing them in the north Sudan district of Southern Kordofan.
“We think about a minimum of 10 000 square kilometres have been returned to the north. Most importantly this territory includes the disputed oilfields,” said, Dirdeiry Mohamed Ahmed, representing north Sudan’s National Congress Party at The Hague.
The borders of Abyei are particularly important because Abyei residents were promised a referendum in 2011 on whether to become part of southern Sudan.
At the same time, south Sudan as a whole has also been promised a referendum on whether to split off as a separate country.
The ruling gave Abyei the bulk of the region that was defined in 2005, including Abyei town, huge areas of fertile land and, according to maps of the new area produced by the UN, the Diffra oilfield.
“We want peace. We think this decision is going to consolidate the peace,” said Riek Machar, the SPLM’s representative in The Hague.
”We came to see justice and it’s a decision we will respect.”
Pierre-Marie Dupuy, the Hague tribunal’s presiding arbitrator, said the new borders would not limit the rights of pastoralist groups, the Dinka Ngok, associated with the south, and the northern Arab Misseriya to graze their animals across the area.
The US special envoy to Sudan said he was convinced the ruling would be fully implemented.
“I have got to tell you, I am optimistic. The commitments that these folks have made in words, I am convinced that they will be carried out in deed, and that this arbitration decision will be fully implemented,” envoy Scott Gration told journalists gathered in the UN compound in Abyei.
It remains to be seen how the decision will be greeted by the northern Misseriya nomads, who may see the establishment of a fixed Abyei border as a challenge to their rights to cross it with their animals.
“The crucial thing will be whether both sides accept this ruling,” Alex Vines, Africa specialist at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, told Reuters.
“Tensions have risen in the last few days and the next few months will be absolutely crucial.”
The UN stepped up security in Abyei in the area in the weeks leading up to the ruling.
UN spokesman Kouider Zerrouk said there were now 783 mostly Indian and Zambian peacekeepers in the area, almost double the number at the time of the heavy north-south fighting in May 2008.