Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Talks on Sudan's Abyei reach no agreement

By Barry Malone

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - The latest round of talks between north and south Sudan over the future of the oil-producing Abyei region, a key hurdle ahead of January referendums in the country, has failed to reach agreement, the parties said on Tuesday.

Sudan is three months away from the scheduled start of the vote on whether Abyei should join north or south Sudan -- a plebiscite promised as part of the 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war.

"Despite serious efforts and many productive discussions, (the delegations) did not succeed in reaching agreement on the eligibility criteria for voters in the Abyei Area referendum," the north's National Congress Party (NCP) and the south's ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) said in a joint statement.

"They will meet again in Ethiopia toward the end of October to continue their discussions. The parties continue to commit themselves to their mutual goal of avoiding a return to conflict," the statement said.

The head of the southern delegation, however, warned the country could return to war without agreement, calling the nine days of talks a failure.

"This round has failed," said Pagan Amum, secretary-general of the south's ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

"We are left with 90 days. The time is very critical. If the parties fail to sort out these issues this could lead to an end of the peace process itself. And the peace may unravel in Sudan," he told reporters in the Ethiopian capital where the talks were being held.

Members of the northern delegation said they may hold a news conference later on Tuesday.

Delegates told Reuters that Sudan's Second Vice-President Ali Osman Taha was flying to Juba on Tuesday to meet south Sudan president Salva Kiir in an attempt to salvage the talks.

One observer at the talks, who declined to be identified, told Reuters that former South African President Thabo Mbeki had offered to mediate when talks resumed.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had urged Khartoum to come to the talks prepared to negotiate. The Obama administration's special envoy for Sudan, Scott Gration, participated in the talks.

At the same time as the Abyei plebiscite, there will also be a referendum on whether south Sudan should secede from the north. That vote is widely expected to bring about Africa's newest country, a development opposed by Khartoum.

Delegates in Addis Ababa told Reuters one possible solution to the impasse was to forego the referendum on Abyei and divide its territory between the north and the south.

But delegates said the teams were unable to agree on any possible border demarcation and what would qualify as Abyei citizenship.

The SPLM says the Khartoum government is settling thousands of Missiriya, a tribe from central Sudan, in northern Abyei to influence the vote. The Khartoum government denies this.

In a sign of mounting tension, south Sudan's army told Reuters four northern soldiers walked into the centre of Abyei town on Monday evening and started shooting randomly in the air, slightly injuring one trader.

An international source in Abyei confirmed gunshots were heard in the town but said it was unclear who was shooting or for what reason. No one was immediately available for comment from the northern army.

"They (the four northern soldiers) were clearly trying to provoke the situation to start fighting," southern army spokesman Kuol Deim Kuol said on Tuesday. "The plan failed because our officers managed to constrain our soldiers not to fire back."

Abyei town is patrolled by a Joint Integrated Unit made up of northern and southern soldiers set up under the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement between north and south. Kuol said the four soldiers came from the northern part of the joint unit.

Northern and southern leaders have accused each other of building up forces north and south of the Abyei area.