May 14, 2008 (Reuters)
South Sudanese former rebels fought northern government forces on Wednesday in the disputed oil-rich Abyei region, killing up to four people and sending hundreds fleeing, south Sudanese and U.N. officials said.
Fighting began near the town of Abyei on Tuesday night, and on Wednesday heavy exchanges of machine gun and mortar fire could be heard from a U.N. base just outside the town in the north-south border zone, witnesses said.
They said hundreds of civilians fled the fighting between northern forces and the former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army. A helicopter evacuated some aid workers and non-essential U.N. staff from the area.
"Some of the SPLA soldiers and the Sudanese Armed Forces were fighting in the market," said Moussa Malei, deputy administrator of Abyei, adding that two people were killed on Tuesday.
Analysts say that Abyei, often called the "Kashmir" of Sudan's north-south conflict and coveted by both sides, could be the flash point to reignite civil war if its status is not resolved amicably and quickly.
Under a 2005 agreement that ended more than 20 years of north-south civil war, Abyei town is to be guarded by special joint units of northern and southern soldiers.
A U.N. official said fighting in Abyei had worsened on Wednesday after a Sudanese government soldier was killed. "That seemed to cause the escalation," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A diplomatic source said the fighting had stemmed from an incident on Tuesday when SPLA forces detained a northern government soldier and some civilians, leading to an argument in which a northern soldier was shot.
The source said an SPLA soldier was killed on Wednesday: "There are gunshots in town, heavy gunfire and mortars."
Commanders from both sides were meeting U.N. staff to resolve their issues, Malei said.
Sudan's ruling National Congress Party accused former southern rebels in April of stirring up tensions in Abyei by unilaterally appointing a governor, saying it violated the north-south ceasefire.
South Sudan's government at the time accused the northern army of sending troops into Abyei, capital of the state.
The deadlock over Abyei shows the difficulties implementing the north-south deal that ended a war which killed 2 million. The peace deal granted semi-autonomous status to south Sudan.
Under the 2005 peace accord residents of Abyei will chose to join the north or south in 2011, when the entire south will vote on secession from the north.
(Additional reporting by Opheera McDoom in Khartoum; Writing by Will Rasmussen; Editing by Elizabeth Piper)
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