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Sudan's Abyei Violence Overshadowing Southern Region's Independence Vote

As many as 46 people have died in Sudan’s disputed border region of Abyei in the past five days, casting a shadow over the peaceful voting in oil-rich Southern Sudan’s referendum on independence.

Ten people were killed and 18 wounded yesterday in the area when members of the Misseriya tribe, which backs President Umar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum, ambushed a convoy of 37 vehicles carrying Southern Sudanese returning from the north, the south’s interior minister, Gier Chuang Aluong, told reporters today in Juba, the regional capital.

The dispute over control of Abyei mainly pits the Misseriya against the Ngok Dinka people, who support the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which governs Southern Sudan. A Misseriya leader accused Southern Sudan’s army of being directly involved in the conflict.

“The problem is not with the Ngok Dinka,” Misseriya leader Mukhtar Babu el-Nimer said today by phone from Muglad, north of Abyei in Southern Kordofan state. “Our problem is with the SPLM.”

At least 23 Ngok Dinka died in the recent clashes, Charles Abyei, the speaker of the local assembly, said yesterday by phone from the area. El-Nimer said 13 of his fellow Misseriya tribesmen died and 33 were wounded in clashes on Jan. 9.

Civil War

Simultaneously with this week’s referendum, Abyei was supposed to vote to decide whether to be part of the north or south. The plebiscite, part of the 2005 peace agreement that ended Sudan’s two-decade civil war, was postponed indefinitely in the region because of disputes over who is eligible to vote.

Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army, denied the army is involved in the Abyei fighting and said the northern government’s Popular Defense Forces militias were participating.

“The SPLA will never intervene,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It is only the Abyei police that will intervene and they are capable of handling the attacks.”

Sudanese army spokesman Al-Sawarmi Khaled, in a phone interview today from the capital, Khartoum, said the army wasn’t involved. “These are tribal issues,” he said. “The armed forces are not part of the dispute.”

Peaceful Referendum

The week-long referendum in Southern Sudan entered its third day today, with the commission that organized the vote saying a heavy turnout may force an extension of balloting beyond Jan. 15.

For the vote on independence to be accepted, a majority and a 60 percent turnout are required. The result is set to be announced by Feb. 14, commission spokeswoman Soad Ibrahim said today by phone from Khartoum. Southern Sudan’s independence, 54 years after the end of British rule in Sudan, would be declared in July.

“There are no problems, there are no complaints,” Ibrahim said. “Turnout is very high in the south. It will be higher than 60 percent.”

An independent south would control almost 80 percent of Sudan’s oil production of 490,000 barrels a day, the third- biggest in sub-Saharan Africa. Abyei accounts for less than 2,500 barrels a day, Al-Sir Sid Ahmed, media adviser to the Oil Minister, said by phone yesterday from Khartoum.

UN ‘Investigating’

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, in a 2009 ruling on Abyei’s borders, set key oil fields, including Heglig and Bamboo, outside of the Abyei region. Those fields and Diffra in Abyei are run by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co., which is 40 percent owned by Beijing-based China National Petroleum Corp.

The United Nations which has a 10,600-member peacekeeping force to monitor a north-south peace agreement said it’s trying to reach the scene of the battles to investigate the violence, though it has no mandate to intervene.

“The UN has been trying to get on the ground to verify the clashes,” Hua Jiang, the director of communications of the UN force, said today by phone. “We would like to have the local authorities’ cooperation.”

The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling set Abyei’s borders to the immediate area around Ngok Dinka settlements, largely excluding the Misseriya, who move their cattle through Abyei in seasonal migration. The north-south peace agreement gave Abyei “special administrative status” and its residents citizenship in both the north and south.

Right to Vote

The Misseriya, backed by Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party, say that as seasonal inhabitants of Abyei they should have the right to vote in the area’s plebiscite.

The SPLM and the Ngok Dinka say that only permanent residents should be eligible.

Clashes in the area three years ago between the armies of northern and southern Sudan killed 89 people and forced more than 90,000 people to flee their homes, according to the UN.

To contact the reporters on this story: Matt Richmond in Juba via Johannesburg at pmrichardson@bloomberg.net; Maram Mazen in Khartoum via the Cairo newsroom at mmazen@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Philip Sanders in London at psanders@bloomberg.net.

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