Conflict resumes in Sudan’s disputed Abyei region, demilitarised zone proposed
(1 June 2011)
Following the recent occupation of the disputed Abyei region by northern troops on 21 May 2011, estimates of between 60,000 and 150,000 people have fled the area. Northern troops entered Abyei in response to attacks by the south upon a UN-escorted northern military convoy on 19 May, it has been reported. The northern army also bombed a bridge across the river Bahr el Arab (referred to as the Kiir by southerners). The UN has remained critical of the decision by the north to occupy Abyei. It is believed this latest dispute could result in the resumption of war between the north and south. However, the south has stated it is adamant that it does not want to go to war again, ahead of declaring its official independence from the north in July. The New York Times also reported that on 29 May it had received a letter that had been sent from the northern Sudanese Army, stating that on 1 June 2011, it would attack all southern troops located north of the 1956 border line in the Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States. These states, along with the Abyei region also remain in dispute between the north and the south.
On 31 May, talks between the southern and northern governments, mediated by the African Union and held in Addis Ababa, have reportedly led to an agreement for the establishment of a demilitarized zone spanning the border region. The proposed 1300-mile demilitarized strip along the length of the 1956 established border is to be jointly patrolled, though currently it is not clear how this will be done or when it will come in to action. It has also been reported that the zone will be 10km wide, however it is unknown if this will be across the border or starting from the border. Al Jazeera news quoted Colonel Philip Aguer of the southern army as saying, “To me that is a good agreement, but the issue now is where is the border.” Also unclear is if a third-party peace keeping force will be involved in patrolling the demilitarised zone. Earlier it was reported that Ethiopia had offered to send its troops as a peace-keeping mission to the border region.
A peace treaty was struck between the north and south in 2005, following a 22-year civil war. An agreement was reached to jointly administer the highly contested Abyei region in 2005, coming in to force in 2008. Since this time however fighting has continued, and the recent actions of the north in occupying Abyei may be a violation of the 2005 peace deal. A referendum was set for January 2012 to decide the outcome of the region, but this has been delayed indefinitely. The Abyei region is contested for several reasons, including its oil reserves and seasonal use by nomadic Misseriya herdsmen, who have been claimed to be used by the northern government as militias.
Sources: ‘Sudan agrees to demilitarise north-south zone’, Al Jazeera, 1 June 2011; ‘Sudan’s warring north and south agree to demilitarised border zone’, Guardian, 31 May 2011; ‘Sudan agrees demilitarised zone for north-south border’, BBC News, 31 May 2011;’ Sudan border strategy may bring in Ethiopian peacekeepers’, Jeffrey Gettleman and Josh Kron, New York Times, 30 May 2011; ‘Sudan threatens to occupy 2 more disputed regions’, Jeffrey Gettleman and Josh Kron, New York Times, 29 May 2011; ‘Sudan: 150,000 flee Abyei clash, says southern minister’, BBC News, 27 May 2011.