A north Sudanese army convoy entered the contested border region of Abyei and clashed with southern police, killing 12 people, the region’s chief administrator, said a southerner.
A northern minister accused the police of starting the fighting and said troops were just joining an internationally-agreed joint north-south force in the area.
Analysts say Abyei is one of the most likely places for conflict to ignite in the countdown to the secession of southern Sudan, expected in July, Reuters reports.
The south, where most follow Christian and traditional beliefs, overwhelmingly voted to declare independence from the mostly Muslim north in a January referendum promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war.
Both sides claim Abyei, a remote area which includes fertile grazing land and oil reserves.
A north Sudanese army convoy of six vehicles with mounted machine guns entered the border region on Sunday, Abyei’s chief administrator Deng Arop Kuol told Reuters.
“They had no authorisation,” he added, referring to an internationally-brokered agreement that only a special joint north-south force should patrol Abyei.
“Shooting broke out after an army major insisted on entering and police stopped the convoy … This was a plan to invade,” Kuol said, adding that a policeman was among the 12 dead.
Sudanese Interior Minister Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamad told Reuters southern police forces had attacked the convoy first.
He said the convoy had been sent to reinforce the joint north-south force after the southern army had earlier sent more troops to the region. The south has denied sending more soldiers to Abyei.
“The (southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) SPLM brought its component from the joint forces, but when the (northern) Sudanese Armed Forces brought its components it was attacked,” he said.
Both sides have built up troops and heavy weapons around the underdeveloped region, according to satellite images and the United Nations.
Last week, Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said he would not recognise south Sudan as an independent state if it did not give up a claim on Abyei made in the south’s draft constitution.
Sudan’s north and south have fought for all but a few years since 1955 over oil, ethnicity, religion and ideology. The conflict killed an estimated 2 million people and destabilised much of east Africa.
Abyei residents were also supposed to have a referendum in January over whether to join the north or south. Disputes over who could vote derailed that ballot and talks over the status of the region have stalled.
Northern and southern leaders have also made little progress in talks over a range of issues including how they will divide up debts and assets, and how the south might pay the north to transport oil after the split.