Representatives from north and south Sudan have agreed to set up a demilitarized zone along their shared border, the African Union said ten days after the north seized the disputed Abyei region.
South Sudan is scheduled to become an independent country in less than six weeks, but the two sides have yet to settle issues such as the position of the common border and sharing oil proceeds.
Khartoum sent tanks and troops into Abyei on May 21, and has since defied calls from the United Nations, United States and south Sudanese officials to withdraw, saying the land belongs to the north. Tens of thousands of people fled the fighting, Reuters reports.
Northern and southern officials met this week in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to discuss Abyei and other issues ahead of the split.
The two sides agreed to establish a joint body headed by their ministers of defence, chiefs of staff, heads of intelligence and police and other officials, the AU said.
“The agreement … establishes a Common Border Zone between North and South Sudan, which is to be demilitarised and jointly monitored and patrolled,” the statement said, without adding further details. It made no specific reference to Abyei.
International organisations have warned of a humanitarian crisis in the central region after widespread looting and burning broke out and tens of thousands of residents fled on foot down roads turned to mud in seasonal rains.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman said a field visit found Abyei town “virtually emptied” of its estimated population of 50,000 to 55,000.
Sporadic shooting could be heard as late as Monday, spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva.
“Large numbers of fighters were present on the streets. Pilfering was openly going on, with people apparently organising batches of stolen belongings,” he said.
About 60,000 displaced people had been registered in areas south of Abyei, he added.
Southern officials have sought to downplay the tensions over Abyei. South Sudan’s Vice President Riek Machar said on Monday the two sides would form a committee to resolve the dispute.
The south’s president Salva Kiir said last week there would be no war over the northern occupation and that it would not derail independence.
South Sudan faces a host of other challenges as it heads towards secession, including internal rebel movements, a serious lack of infrastructure and widespread illiteracy.