South Sudanese accuse Khartoum of sending troops

June 3, 2008 (Reuters)

By Skye Wheeler

JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - South Sudanese officials accused the government on Tuesday of reinforcing troops in the disputed oil town of Abyei, raising tensions as U.N. Security Council envoys flew in to shore up a north-south peace deal.

Clashes in Abyei last month increased fears of a return to all out war between the northern government and the south, which signed a peace agreement in 2005 to end two decades of civil war.

The Security Council envoys, who flew into the southern capital Juba on a tour of African hotspots, will discuss Abyei with both sides.

At stake in Abyei is control of lucrative oilfields and a pipeline supplying about half Sudan's daily 500,000 barrel output. Three years after the peace accord, the sides have failed to agree on the borders or administration for the area.

Deng Arop, a senior official of the parliament in the semi-autonomous south, said 38 trucks full of northern soldiers had arrived in el-Muglad, a town about 120 km (75 miles) north of Abyei, over the weekend.

"They are converging on Abyei, they expect a big fight," he told Reuters. "There are three battalions -- one brigade."

He estimated that would mean 2,100 soldiers and not less than 1,500, equipped with heavy weapons.

The southern army's deputy chief of staff, Salva Mathok, also said northern forces had been moving into the area in recent days. He said southern troops had decided to withdraw to avoid more fighting with the government forces.


"They are bringing in more troops and equipment. They are digging in," Mathok said.

No on was immediately available for comment from Sudan's government or armed forces. But officials have denied southern accusations of troop buildups in the past.

At least 20 soldiers were killed in Abyei last month and the fighting forced tens of thousands of people from their homes.

The envoys of the 15-nation U.N. Security Council are making a three-day visit to Sudan, where they will also be looking at the separate conflict in the western Darfur region since 2003.

Rebels in far-flung regions of Africa's biggest country accuse traditionally Arab-dominated governments of neglect and discrimination. Black African south Sudan is largely Christian and animist. Darfur is strongly Muslim but mostly non-Arab.

Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, John Sawers, told Reuters the members of the Security Council were hoping to discuss Abyei with South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, before meeting northern leaders on Wednesday.

"It's too early to talk about a crisis in the CPA," Sawers said, referring to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

"But we will certainly be wanting to talk to President Salva Kiir and to leaders in Khartoum about how to move forward and get the CPA back on track," he said before leaving Djibouti.

The U.S. envoy to Sudan, Richard Williamson, said on Monday said there had been some progress in negotiations between northern and southern leaders since the fighting in Abyei and that "gaps have been narrowed substantially".

But Abyei remained a flashpoint, he said.


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