Northern troops enter disputed Sudan oil town

JUBA, Sudan
April 2, 2008 (Reuters)

Some 200 heavily armed northern soldiers entered the capital of Sudan's oil-rich Abyei state, southern officials told Reuters on Wednesday, describing heightened tensions in the area coveted by Khartoum and Juba.

Under a 2005 north-south peace deal that ended more than 20 years of civil war, Abyei town is to be guarded by special joint units of northern and southern soldiers. But a witness said the new soldiers had set up separately in the town centre.

"There are 222 soldiers. ... It is a violation of the peace agreement," said Malony Thong, deputy head of Abyei State's Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) administration, the former southern rebel group that now leads south Sudan.

Thong said the northern forces that arrived on Monday were sent into Abyei town to "escalate the security situation in the area".

A southern Sudanese aid worker told Reuters from Abyei the soldiers had set up in a school inside the town.

"They came with seven mounted Toyotas and four trucks all full of soldiers and guns," Acuil Ajang said. "Everybody is very worried about this," he added.

The northern army declined to immediately comment on the report.

Sudan's north-south civil war killed 2 million people. 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.

Analysts have called the region -- one of Sudan's most important oil producing areas -- "Sudan's Kashmir" and the greatest threat to the hard-won north-south peace accord.

Despite the peace deal, North-South tensions over the area have never truly subsided. An international group of experts marked Abyei's borders in 2005 but their report was rejected by the northern National Congress Party (NCP).

Earlier this year, northern armed nomadic Misseriya tribesmen, who the south says are supported by Khartoum, blockaded the main trade link through the oil-producing state.

SPLM Chairman Salva Kiir has said more than $1 billion in oil revenues has been taken by the northern government instead of being split 50 percent with the south as the peace accord requires.

Ajang said the sudden appearance of the forces may be a reaction to the arrival of the SPLM administrator of Abyei last week, Edward Lino.

Lino, a high profile figure in the SPLM, is commonly referred to by southerners as "Abyei's new governor".

The NCP has criticised the SPLM decision to appoint an administrator for Abyei, as the composition of a joint state government is still being discussed within Sudan's presidency.

Thong said the SPLM would not confront the soldiers militarily but would used diplomatic means to get them to withdraw.

"No, we are not going to fight them," Thong said.

(Reporting by Skye Wheeler, Editing by Opheera McDoom and Mary Gabriel)


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