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Abyei on the Brink Again

UN peacekeepers pass through streets lined with looted items awaiting collection in Abyei. UN Photo/Stuart Price/May 2011.

Abyei, the contested border region whose final status is not resolved, is once again the scene of violence that has the potential to derail the final negotiations between Sudan’s north and south before South Sudan declares its independence on July 9, 2011. At risk should this violence reignite the larger war are the lives of millions of civilians who have already survived decades of conflict and are eagerly awaiting their chance to build a new future.

Beginning on Friday, May 20, Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) bombed and then unilaterally moved into Abyei town, looting and burning. Almost the entire civilian population has fled. The SAF are refusing to leave until a new agreement between the north and south is signed that would govern Abyei’s status.

Tensions between the two sides had been escalating throughout this spring, even while the final status was being negotiated by northern and southern leaders with international mediators. Both sides built up their armed forces in the area and low level clashes often followed by civilian flight south of the town occurred at several points.

The pace of these confrontations accelerated in May: on May 1st, clashes between southern Sudanese police and SAF resulted in 14 deaths. On the 12th, SPLA forces allegedly ambushed SAF troops, killing 14. The situation was momentarily defused when both sides agreed to remove all unauthorized troops from the area by May 17th. This agreement was not carried out. On May 19, SPLA forces allegedly attacked SAF forces accompanied by a UN unit that was deploying to posts previously agreed upon with SPLA. Twenty-two SAF soldiers were killed and another 100 are missing. The SPLA denies it was responsible for these attacks.

African Union negotiators, a delegation from UN Security Council, the U.S. and other diplomats are working to defuse the quickly evolving situation, but both sides have hardened their stances.