NEW YORK // Rival Sudanese leaders signed an agreement yesterday to demilitarise the contested oil-producing region of Abyei and allow in Ethiopian peacekeepers to restore security, said the former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who is leading peace talks.
Mr Mbeki, an African Union negotiator, said the deal between north and south Sudan could "bring to an end this threat of violence and actual violence" that has beset Abyei in recent weeks. The UN Security Council should authorise a deployment of UN peacekeepers "as quickly as possible", he added.
The agreement comes three weeks before the south is due to secede from the north and create the world's newest nation.
Heavy fighting has broken out along the north-south border in the run-up to the south's anticipated declaration of independence.
Violence erupted in Abyei on May 20 after an attack on northern and UN soldiers, which Khartoum blamed on southern troops.
Northern forces took control of the town, which lies near fertile land and major oilfields that straddle the border and that both sides claim as their own.
More than 100,000 civilians have fled the fighting, the UN says. Speaking through a video-link from Addis Ababa, where peace talks are taking place, Mr Mbeki told the UN Security Council that the agreement would "enable the displaced people in Abyei to return to their homes".
Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the UN, called for swift implementation of the deal and said Washington is drafting a Security Council resolution to authorise the deployment of an interim security force. It is understood to include one battalion of about 4,000 Ethiopian troops.
"We welcome the news that the parties have just signed an agreement on temporary administrative and security arrangements for Abyei and the withdrawal of Sudanese armed forces," Ms Rice told the 15-nation body in Manhattan yesterday.
"Now comes the crucial task of full and timely implementation."
The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, urged leaders from north and south to stick to the freshly inked agreement and "demilitarise the area and establish an administration and police service" to restore stability, said his spokesman Martin Nesirky.
Clashes around Abyei and in the neighbouring border areas of Southern Kordofan have raised concerns about a resumption of Sudan's two-decade civil war, which claimed some two million lives before it ended with a peace agreement in 2005.
South Sudan voted overwhelmingly in January to secede and is due to become independent on July 9, but the north and south have yet to work out details like demarcating the border and exporting oil on the global market and sharing the revenues.
Mr Mbeki told Security Council members that north-south discussions are making headway on issues such as trade, currency, debt and oil.
But the parties have not agreed on the size and composition of an international military force to police the demilitarised border zone.
Fighting continued between pro-south communities and northern forces in South Kordofan yesterday. Ms Rice told council members of "horrifying" violence with "ethnic dimensions" taking place in northern Sudan's only oil-producing state.
Ms Rice said the alleged rounding up and killing of southern sympathisers by north Sudan forces could amount to "crimes against humanity".
The UN mission there is "dangerously low" on food supplies, she added, calling the lack of UN access "alarming and indefensible".
Fighting and air strikes by Sudan's military in Southern Kordofan in the last two weeks have displaced 60,000 people, the UN said.
A Sudanese aircraft dropped seven bombs 500 metres from an airstrip in the town of Kauda on Sunday, the UN said.
UN spokesman Mr Nesirky expressed "great concern as the military build-up continues" and urged both sides to "cease hostilities and military operations, which are endangering the lives of tens of thousands of civilians".
* With additional reporting from AP and AFP