Heavy fighting erupts in Sudan oil town

By Andrew Heavens

May 20, 2008 (Reuters)

Heavy fighting erupted between Sudan's army and southern Sudanese forces in the disputed oil-rich town of Abyei on Tuesday, leaving at least 100 injured and an unknown number dead, aid workers said.

Analysts warned the fierce fighting in Abyei -- an area claimed by both Khartoum and the semi-autonomous south -- threatened a key north-south peace deal and risked reigniting a two-decade civil war.

The United Nations said the fighting had practically destroyed the impoverished central Sudanese town and disrupted emergency efforts to supply food, water and medical care to up to 50,000 people who fled earlier fighting.

Abyei's status was left undecided in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between north and south Sudan. Both sides have remained at loggerheads over the lucrative region's exact border and government.

Growing tensions in the region were underlined last week when a local dispute exploded into armed clashes between the northern Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

Aid workers said a lull in the fighting ended at around 4 a.m. local time (0200 GMT) on Tuesday when SPLA troops attacked the town. Sporadic shooting continued into the afternoon, an international source added.

"The fighting was heavy," said one aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It was between SAF and the SPLA. We think it was a counter-attack by the SPLA."

The worker added that Sudan Armed Forces had occupied Abyei over the weekend. But SPLA forces had attacked in a bid to push government troops back again.

Armed forces spokesman brigadier Uthman al-Agbash told the Suna state news agency a number of army soldiers had been killed in the fighting. He said the SPLA had used heavy artillery in the attack, as well as tanks and rocket propelled grenades.

The U.N. Mission in Sudan, which has evacuated many of its staff from the area, on Monday said it had started distributing food supplies to up to 50,000 people who had fled the fighting.

"People are still fleeing. This fighting could have a dire impact on the entire humanitarian operation," said Orla Clinton, spokeswoman for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

"We have been told that there are at least 100 people injured on the ground," said one aid worker who had received updates from staff at an aid centre near Abyei.

Andrew Stroehlein, spokesman for the Brussels based International Crisis Group think tank, called the Abyei fighting the most serious since the peace agreement was signed. He called on EU foreign ministers due to hold a regular meeting in Brussels on Monday to urge both sides to refrain from violence and pull back to the ceasefire line.

"Otherwise this really could be the restarting of the civil war in Sudan," he told a news briefing. "The entire town has been torched to the ground basically," he said.

Many senior members of the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement were attending the final day of their party's national conference in the southern capital of Juba on Tuesday and were unavailable for comment.

Commentators have in the past questioned the ability of leaders in Juba and Khartoum to exert full control over their troops on the ground in the remote region of Abyei.


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