Sudan rejected a UN call to withdraw from the Abyei region’s main town and said it would keep forces there until a new accord is signed with Southern Sudan that guarantees stability and freedom of movement for all citizens.
The north’s troops have become entrenched in several parts of the disputed border region to protect civilians, reaching Bahr al-Arab, south of Abyei town, or Kiir River as it is known in the south, Defense Minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein said.
“The circumstances need, in our opinion, a new agreement to be signed,” Hussein told lawmakers today in Omdurman, a suburb of Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. “We are staying in Abyei until we get an order telling us otherwise, and we will not let go of one inch of land.”
The capture of Abyei took place May 21, hours after the arrival of a dozen top United Nations diplomats in Khartoum. It sparked concern that violence may escalate between northern and Southern Sudan, which fought a two-decade civil war that ended with a U.S.-brokered peace accord in 2005. The UN Security Council demanded the “immediate withdrawal” of Sudan’s forces, while the African Union expressed “very grave concern” at the development.
“This is a very serious violation of the comprehensive peace agreement and it certainly jeopardizes the process of negotiation that has been underway,” the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan, Princeton Lyman, said in Washington.
Lyman said Sudan’s actions were an “extremely disproportionate response” that created a “serious” danger. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have been speaking with Sudanese leaders to try to diffuse the situation, Lyman said.
The Sudanese army’s military operation “threatens to undermine the mutual commitment of the parties to avoid a return to war,” according to a statement by the UN Security Council read out by Gerard Araud, French ambassador to the UN, at a news conference yesterday in Khartoum. “It is very rare for the Security Council to express itself this way out of New York.”
Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum said it gained military control over Abyei in self-defense after accusing Southern Sudan’s army of attacking its troops while they were withdrawing from the region with a UN convoy. At least 22 members of Sudan’s army were killed in the May 19 attack and more than 100 are missing, Hussein said today.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army of Southern Sudan denied its forces were responsible for the initial assault and said the actions taken by the north’s forces were a step toward “full-scale” war.
The “SPLA will not just watch and allow the Sudan armed forces to invade Southern Sudan,” Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the group, told reporters today in Juba, capital of Southern Sudan.
The independence of oil-rich Southern Sudan, backed in a Jan. 9 vote, is scheduled for July 9.
Northern and Southern Sudan had agreed to withdraw “all unauthorized forces” from Abyei by May 17 after clashes on May 1 killed 14 people.
Abyei is contested between the region’s Ngok Dinka people, 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 Khartoum government. The region produces less than 2,500 barrels of oil a day, according to Sudan’s Oil Ministry.
As many as 30,000 civilians had fled south before Sudan’s Armed Forces rolled into the town with dozens of tanks, leaving the town deserted amid reports of looting by militia, according to UN officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. Mortar shells hit a UN compound, forcing about 200 staffers to seek refuge in bunkers.
Armed elements have been burning and looting parts of Abyei town, the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan said today in an e-mailed statement. The mission urged the Sudanese government, which currently controls Abyei, “to urgently ensure that the Sudan Armed Forces fulfill their responsibility and intervene to stop these criminal acts,” according to the statement.
Fighting 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.