JUBA // Northern Sudan’s invasion of a contested border region is an act of war, a spokesman for the Southern Sudanese army said yesterday, raising fears that fighting over the oil-rich area could reignite a civil war between the north and south.
Northern forces with tanks occupied the disputed town of Abyei on Saturday night, scattering southern troops that were there as part of a joint security unit, said southern officials and a United Nations spokeswoman.
Khartoum-based state television cited unnamed military sources who said the army was in full control of the situation in Abyei.
Both north and south claim the fertile region, which lies near several important oilfields. Hollywood actor George Clooney set up a project to monitor the area by satellite, fearing it could be a flash point that could draw the region back into civil war.
A southern army spokesman, Colonel Philip Aguer, said: “We didn’t declare war. The [Sudanese ruling party] National Congress Party and the Sudan Armed Forces declared war on us.”
The northern ruling party of President Omar al Bashir issued a statement backing the northern armed forces, which it said were “entrusted with protecting Sudan’s territory and stability and the security of its citizens in the south and north”.The north’s seizure of the town follows several days of fighting and bombing and drew immediate condemnation from the US government.
Southern Sudan fought the north for more than two decades in a brutal war that claimed more than 2 million lives and forced more than 4 million people to flee their homes. A peace deal in 2005 offered the south the chance for independence and it overwhelmingly voted to secede in a January referendum. It is due to become the world’s newest country in less than two months but the Abyei violence threatens to further destabilise an already volatile region.
Residents of Abyei district were meant to have a referendum in January over whether to join the north or the south. Disputes over who could vote derailed that ballot and talks over the status of the region have stalled.
North and south have yet to agree how to share oil revenues and other assets prior to the break-up.
The north supports the nomadic Arab Misseriya tribe, which grazes its cattle in Abyei, and the south backs the Dinka Ngok tribe, which lives there year round.
The district was granted a special status under the 2005 peace deal that ended 22 years of devastating civil war. The deal requires both sides to keep their troops out until a plebiscite is held to determine its future.
Colonel Aguer said “The fighting has been very, very bad. People have fled the area, because the bombardment was indiscriminate – bombs from the air and from tanks on the ground.
“They came into Abyei with a full division of soldiers, while we did not have a fighting force on the ground.”
Colonel Aguer said southern troops stationed in Abyei were overrun and scattered after the north conducted two days of aerial bombardments, focusing on a bridge where southern reinforcements would have entered.The southern army “will maintain the status quo”, he said, while it waits for the decision of the southern government on how best to respond. Colonel Aguer called for the United Nations Mission in Sudan “to protect the people of Abyei”, saying that the northern government intends to “displace civilians and commit human rights violations as they did in Darfur”, Sudan’s western region where a civil war broke out in 2003.
Several members of the Abyei government were missing, he said.“There has been a fighting mood in Khartoum,” said Southern Sudanese Minister of Information Barnaba Marial Benjamin, referring to the capital of northern Sudan. “We cannot accept this fighting mood to continue … the event is a long-term plan done by the government of Khartoum to disrupt and carry out an invasion.”
The aid group Medecins sans Frontieres said in a statement the entire population of Abyei fled Saturday morning after the bombing raids, gunfights and mortaring. One mortar exploded in a UN compound but there were no casualties. There were at least 15 northern tanks in Abyei, A UN spokeswoman, Hua Jiang, said Saturday night.
The northern army moves come a few days after an attack by southern troops on a northern convoy accompanied by UN troops in the area. Sudan’s defence minister said in an interview published on Sunday that the south has been “provoking” his troops.“There is no way but to respond in kind,” General Abdul Rahim Hussein told the daily newspaper Al Akhbar. “The situation is open for all possibilities now.”
The Sudanese army said it had suffered “huge losses” in the Thursday attack, but did not provide details. The escalation comes after an agreement by the two sides to withdraw all “unauthorised forces” from the area. But like many previous UN-brokered deal on the status of Abyei this year, none was fully implemented and the status of the territory remains unresolved.
The massive escalation in the most volatile spot along Sudan’s contested north-south border also came as the UN Security Council began a four-day visit to Sudan. The council’s scheduled visit to Abyei has been cancelled because of the violence.
The US condemned the offensive on Saturday, saying Thursday’s attack by southern forces on a UN was deplorable but the north’s response “disproportionate and irresponsible”. The White House statement said: “The actions being taken by the government of Sudan are blatant violations of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and threaten to undermine the mutual commitment of the CPA parties to avoid a return to war.”
It called on Sudan’s military to cease its offensive in Abyei and withdraw its forces. Failure to do so could set back the process of normalising US-Sudanese relations, the statement warned.The south is mainly animist and Christian and its people are linguistically and ethnically linked to sub-Saharan Africa. The north is overwhelmingly Muslim and many members of the government consider themselves Arabs. Most of Sudan’s oil is in the south but the pipeline needed to export it runs through northern territory to a northern-held port.
*Associated Press with additional reporting from Reuters and Agence France-Presse