South Sudan’s government said it opposes plans by ethnic Ngok Dinka to hold a referendum on self-determination in the disputed Abyei region as Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir arrived in the country for talks on the issue.
The Ngok Dinka Community of the Abyei Area on Oct. 18 declared its intention to hold a plebiscite in the border area after al-Bashir and his South Sudanese counterpart, Salva Kiir, failed to resolve the final status of Abyei in previous rounds of talks. The group invited international observers and the media to monitor the vote, without saying when it will be held.
“We will not accept a unilateral decision being passed,” South Sudan Information Minister Michael Makuei said in an interview yesterday in the capital, Juba. “And if the people of Abyei decided to join us, we will not be ready to accept them.”
Abyei is contested by the Ngok Dinka, who are settled in the area and consider themselves southerners, and Misseriya nomads who herd their cattle south in the dry season and are supported by the government in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. The African Union has called for a referendum to be held this month, with only people who reside in the area eligible to vote on which country Abyei belongs to. That proposal is backed by South Sudan and rejected by the north.
The impasse over Abyei has threatened to derail improving relations between the two neighbors, which agreed in March to restart crude oil exports from South Sudan’s oil fields via Sudanese pipelines to an export terminal at Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
Sudan won’t threaten to halt the south’s crude exports again as a way to try and force concessions out of the south, Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman said in a phone interview today from Khartoum. Al-Bashir arrived in Juba this morning for talks with Kiir.
Halting oil shipments “is completely off the table,” Osman said. “Relations with the south are excellent and improving, especially that we have started easing border restrictions to improve trade.”
The African Union’s Peace and Security Council expressed “deep concern” about the situation in Abyei and called on al-Bashir and Kiir to take concrete steps to resolve the dispute, according to a statement e-mailed today.
In 2009, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague set Abyei’s borders to the area around Ngok Dinka settlements. That largely excluded the Misseriya, who say that as seasonal inhabitants of the area, they should also have the right to vote. Clashes between the north and south in May-June 2011 forced more than 113,000 people to flee their homes in the area, according to the United Nations.
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