Deadly fighting rages in Sudan flashpoint

by Jennie Matthew

May 20, 2008 (AFP)

Deadly fighting raged between rival Sudanese forces on Tuesday in Abyei, a flashpoint oil district between north and south whose status remains contested three years after the end of civil war.

Aid workers said fighting went on for at least five hours between government troops and southern ex-rebels, who fought Africa's longest civil war until reaching a fragile power-sharing peace agreement with Khartoum in 2005.

The clashes, involving guns, mortar rounds and artillery, reached outside the gate of the main UN compound on the edge of town and severed a tentative ceasefire brokered by the United Nations late last week, aid workers said.

Impasse over Abyei -- whose oil wealth is bitterly contested by Sudan's mainly Arab north and mainly Christian and animist south -- has been one issue delaying implementation of the 2005 peace deal and without resolution could sink the agreement, analysts say.

The violence resumed on Tuesday when the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) attacked the impoverished town of Abyei, which lies at the heart of the contested district and which had been under government military control.

The Sudanese army spokesman said the military sustained "martyrs" in the assault but that the 31st Brigade deployed in Abyei was repulsing the attack.

"It started at 4:00 am (0100 GMT) and stopped around 8:00 am. It started again just before 10:00 am and lasted about an hour. The fighting has been very heavy," said one aid worker on condition of anonymity.

"It's currently quiet but I think the general feeling is that this is not the end," the aid worker added.

Fears are rising of a possible counter-attack on Agok, 25 kilometres (15 miles) south where UN agencies and aid workers are distributing food to some of the 30,000 to 50,000 people displaced by fighting in Abyei last week.

"The UN is currently using all means we can to get this resolved peacefully," Chris Johnson, head of the UN mission in Abyei, told AFP.

Sudan's official SUNA news agency said SPLA forces attacked Abyei at dawn using heavy artillery in a bid to seize control of the town.

Aid workers confirmed that the SPLA attacked the town, which is supposed to be patrolled by joint north-south military units.

"The armed forces are repulsing the attack," SUNA quoted military spokesman Othman Mohammed al-Agbash as saying.

"The armed forces have sustained a number of martyrs... The assessment of the losses is still ongoing," he added.

The United Nations last week evacuated its entire civilian staff from the town following days of fighting between government forces and the SPLA.

There have been no clear casualty numbers for any of the clashes.

Aid workers last week reported bodies in the streets but said any possible casualties on Tuesday would be military because the entire civilian population -- a mixture of Arab and Ngok Dinka tribesmen -- fled the town.

Footage broadcast by the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera television network from Abyei after last week's fighting showed a burnt-out bus, the smouldering wreckage of destroyed shops and homes, and cement buildings reduced to shells.

Early last month, north and south Sudan were at loggerheads over what the north interpreted as the south's dispatch of one of its own to administer the area.

The SPLM has voiced increasing impatience with what it sees as the failure of President Omar al-Beshir's National Congress to implement a protocol setting the basis for the oil district's administration until 2011.

In its last comprehensive report on Sudan, the International Crisis Group think-thank warned that robust international engagement was needed to help solve the crisis in Abyei, where underlying problems threaten the peace deal.

The group estimated that revenue from Abyei's oilfields was roughly 529 million dollars in 2007, income desperately needed by the Khartoum regime.

The January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement gave the south a six-year transition period of regional autonomy and participation in a national unity government until a 2011 referendum on independence.

At the same time, Abyei will hold a separate referendum on whether to retain its special administrative status in the north or join the south.



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