The UN expressed concern about the presence of former Southern Sudanese rebels in a contested oil-rich area near the border with the north, raising fears of violence days ahead of a key court decision on the region’s boundaries.
Recurrent fighting between the north and south in Abyei region has strained a 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of civil war in which 2 million people died. The region is located just north of the disputed boundary line with Southern Sudan, but both sides claim it as their own.
The UN representative to Sudan, Ashraf Qazi, said on Saturday that he had received several reports in the past few weeks that the former SPLA rebels and police are present in Abyei. Their presence is in violation of an agreement struck between the north and south last year to let a special tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands, decide Abyei’s boundaries.
“This is a clear violation of the Abyei Roadmap Agreement and could lead to escalation and violence if it remained unchecked,” Qazi said.
Pagan Amum, the secretary-general of the ruling political party in the south, dismissed Qazi’s concerns, saying the forces present in the region were there to protect the southern president, who was visiting nearby, and left afterward.
“There are no forces for the SPLA or southern police in the Abyei area,” he said in a statement sent by e-mail to reporters.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his regular report to the Security Council on July 14 that the south had made similar complaints about the presence of forces affiliated with the north in Abyei, which contains a significant percentage of Sudan’s oil and important grazing areas.
Under the Abyei agreement, only joint forces from the north and south can be present in the region. Qazi said the UN was looking at scaling up its presence in Abyei, but complained that the peacekeeping force’s movement was being restricted. He didn’t blame a particular side.
The two sides negotiated the agreement after a major outbreak of violence in May last year. Soldiers from the north and south clashed for more than a week in the town of Abyei, burning it to the ground and sending its 50,000 residents fleeing. At least 22 northern soldiers were killed.
The tribunal in the Hague is scheduled to announce Abyei’s boundaries tomorrow, but many are worried violence could follow the court’s decision. The north rejected the boundaries drawn by a panel of experts in 2005, claiming they had exceeded their mandate.
The tension over Abyei will come to a head in 2011, when the southern Sudanese are scheduled under the 2005 peace treaty to hold a referendum to decide whether to secede from the north or remain united. Abyei residents will hold a separate referendum to decide whether to join the north or south.
There are concerns that the kind of violence that struck the town of Abyei last year could flare up at any point in this process. The administrator of Abyei region, Mayak Arop, said less than half of Abyei town’s resident’s have returned because they fear a resumption of fighting.
He said that although the court will determine Abyei’s boundaries, friction between the north and south is still likely.
“My main concern is security,” Arop said.