Sudan’s government said a new impasse over the disputed Abyei region should be resolved through peaceful means and called for talks with officials from Southern Sudan and the United Nations.
“There’s no way of going back to war,” Kamal Ismail Saeed, Sudan’s ambassador to Kenya, told reporters today in Nairobi, the capital. “We are committed to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in both letter and spirit.”
Sudan’s army seized Abyei on May 21 after accusing Southern Sudan’s security forces of attacking its troops while they were withdrawing from the region with a UN convoy. The capture sparked concern that violence may escalate between northern and Southern Sudan, which fought a two-decade civil war that ended with the U.S.-brokered peace accord, known as the CPA, in 2005.
Yesterday, Sudanese Defense Minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein rejected a call by the UN to withdraw and said Sudan’s forces would remain there until a new accord is signed with Southern Sudan that guarantees the safety and freedom of movement for all of Abyei’s citizens. About 70 soldiers were killed and 120 more are missing in the May 19 attack, according to a statement distributed by Sudan’s embassy in Nairobi today.
“We are open for negotiations,” Saeed said today. “We are not there to force anything.” Options for discussion may include the north withdrawing its troops, or a return to an arrangement to operate “joint forces,” he said.
In a Jan. 9 referendum, voters backed independence for oil-rich Southern Sudan. Both the north and the south claim Abyei, which lies on the border between the two regions. In the lead-up to Southern Sudan’s scheduled independence on July 9, northern and Southern Sudan agreed to withdraw “all unauthorized forces” from Abyei by May 17.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, head of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel, held “promising discussions” with Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir and his Southern Sudanese counterpart Salva Kiir about Abyei over the past two days, the African Union said today.
Bashir and Kiir “reaffirmed their willingness to work out modalities for the withdrawal of all unauthorized forces from the Abyei area,” the AU said in an e-mailed statement today.
The Abyei region 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 UN Security Council has demanded an immediate withdrawal of Sudan’s forces from Abyei. UN diplomats travelled to Khartoum on May 21 and were in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, today.
The Security Council will reassess other options when it returns to New York should a reversal of the status quo not happen quickly, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN and Susan Rice, his U.S. counterpart, told reporters today in Juba. They didn’t specify what options might be considered.
“We will see if our message will be translated into actions,” Churkin said. “The background is rather dramatic and we are all very concerned about the dramatic developments in Abyei.”
The Security Council must ensure that protecting civilians will be a top priority for a planned peacekeeping mission for Southern Sudan after its independence, by deploying more troops in “hotspot areas”, Oxfam GB, the English charity, said today in an e-mailed statement.
“Over 1,400 people have been killed in Southern Sudan so far this year already more than in the whole of 2010 and at least 117,000 have fled their homes,” the group said, as ethnic violence and clashes between Southern Sudan’s army and rebels escalate in the region. Nearly 1,000 people were killed in Southern Sudan last year, the group said.
Abyei was scheduled to vote in January on whether to join the south or remain a special administrative region in the north. The referendum was postponed indefinitely in Abyei because of disagreements over who was eligible to vote. The region produces less than 2,500 barrels of oil a day, according to Sudan’s Oil Ministry.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, in a 2009 ruling, set Abyei’s borders to the area around Ngok Dinka settlements, largely excluding the pro-northern Misseriya ethnic group. The Misseriya say that as seasonal inhabitants of Abyei, they should also have the right to vote.