Monday, May 23, 2011

Sudan Rejects Call for Its Forces to Withdraw From Dispute Region of Abyei

Sudan rejected calls to withdraw from the disputed region of Abyei and said its forces would remain there until a new agreement is signed with Southern Sudan guaranteeing stability and freedom of movement for all citizens.

The north’s forces have entrenched their presence in several parts of the region, reaching Bahr al-Arab south of Abyei town, or Kiir River as it is known in the south, in order to protect civilians, Defense Minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein told lawmakers today in Omdurman, a suburb Khartoum, the capital.

“Abyei will remain northern until its original residents decide their fate,” he said.

The capture of Abyei took place hours after the arrival of a dozen top United Nations envoys in Khartoum and sparked concern violence may escalate between northern and southern Sudan, which fought a two-decade civil war that ended with a U.S.-brokered peace agreement 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.

Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum said it gained military control over the town of Abyei in self- defense after accusing Southern Sudan’s army of attacking its troops while they were withdrawing from the town with a UN convoy on May 19. At least 22 members of Sudan’s army were killed and more than 100 are missing after the May 19 attack, Hussein said today.

The southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army 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.

“SPLA will not just watch and allow the Sudan armed forces to invade Southern Sudan,” Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the SPLA, told reporters today in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan.

A Jan. 9 independence vote will split the oil-rich south from the largely Muslim north. Both sides stake a claim to Abyei, a region that 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 after clashes on May 1 killed 14 people.

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 decision-making body 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.”
‘Dangerous’ Escalation

The flaring of hostilities forced the UN delegation to scrap plans to visit the region during their three-day visit to Sudan. “Now it is on a course of escalation that is quite dangerous,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told reporters in Khartoum yesterday.

In a sign of heightened tensions between the UN’s most important executive body and Sudan’s government, Vice President Ali Osman Taha and Foreign Minister Ali Karti canceled scheduled meetings with the ambassadors. Rice said it was a “missed opportunity” for the government.

Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s permanent representative, said the Security Council was told “Karti was ill” and added “we wished him a speedy and complete recovery.”

The UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan, whose more than 10,000 peacekeepers have a mandate to monitor the peace process, “should pack bags and wait for July 9,” Amin Hassan Omar, Sudanese minister of state for presidential affairs, told reporters yesterday in Khartoum.
Contested Region

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 postponed a vote, originally scheduled for January, on whether to join the south or remain a special administrative region in the north because of disagreements on who was eligible to vote.

Abyei produces less than 2,500 barrels of oil a day, according to Sudan’s Oil Ministry.

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.

While the clashes mark a serious development in the peace process, they are unlikely to lead to a north-south war across the border, Fouad Hikmat, Brussels-based International Crisis Group’s special adviser on Sudan, said by phone yesterday from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

“It’s a tactical move, perhaps before the Security Council’s visit,” Hikmat said. “If there’s any fighting, it’s likely to stay confined within Abyei.”