SUDAN WATCH: Thousands flee fighting in oil-rich Abyei - Night curfew in force for those who remain

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Thousands flee fighting in oil-rich Abyei - Night curfew in force for those who remain

Thousands have fled Sudan's volatile oil town of Abyei after fresh north-south fighting has reignited tensions over the contested area, officials said on Saturday.

Local officials said up to 10,000 Abyei residents had returned to the area to rebuild their homes before Friday's clashes.

But a U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said almost all the people who had moved back to the town had been forced to flee again on Friday. A night curfew was now in force for those who remained, the official added.

Source: Sat 13 Dec 2008 Reuters report by Andrew Heavens in Khartoum, Sudan. Copy:
THOUSANDS FLEE FIGHTING IN SUDAN OIL FLASHPOINT

Thousands have fled Sudan's volatile oil town of Abyei after fresh north-south fighting has reignited tensions over the contested area, officials said on Saturday.

At least one person was killed after shooting broke out on Friday between police and soldiers in the first significant violence since northern and southern troops clashed in the town in May, raising fears for a north-south peace deal.

Both Khartoum and its semi-autonomous south claim Abyei which is close to lucrative oil fields and a key pipeline.

The borders of the town and its surrounding territory were left undecided in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended two decades of north-south civil war. Both sides have refused to compromise over the demarcation.

Scores were killed, more than 50,000 were left homeless and Abyei was burnt to the ground in the May clashes, which observers say may have started after a relatively minor confrontation at a checkpoint spiralled out of control.

Both sides eventually signed a roadmap agreement setting up a temporary administration, withdrawing troops and replacing them with integrated police and military units made up of both northerners and southerners.

Local officials said up to 10,000 Abyei residents had returned to the area to rebuild their homes before Friday's clashes.

But a U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said almost all the people who had moved back to the town had been forced to flee again on Friday. A night curfew was now in force for those who remained, the official added.

DISPLACED

"The population fled in all directions," Colonel James Monday from Abyei's police force told reporters.

"There's very few people left. The market is closed. There's no bread and no meat," he added.

Monday said the shooting started after a northern soldier in the joint military unit got into an argument with a trader in the town's market and police tried to intervene.

"The army released bullets and the police released bullets and there was a fight. Two civilians were injured in the market," he said, adding that one northern soldier was killed and four other troops injured.

U.N. peacekeepers managed to separate the fighters and sent delegations to northern and southern army bases outside the town, urging calm.

A spokesman from the northern Sudanese army declined to comment on the clashes.

Major General Biar Ajang, from the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army, told reporters he had heard two northern soldiers had died in the fighting.

He said the fighting had added to a broader build-up of tension in the region, citing recent reinforcements by northern troops in the Southern Kordofan region, north of Abyei.

Khartoum earlier this month said it was building up troops to counter moves from rebels in war-torn Darfur region.

But Ajang dismissed the explanation as "just excuses."

"There is the border, there are other political issues that we assume to be the reason for the mobilization of troops in this area," he said.

June's Abyei roadmap deal also agreed to refer the issue of Abyei's disputed borders -- which would decide whether one of Sudan's two largest oil fields is in north or south Sudan -- to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

(Additional reporting by Skye Wheeler in Juba; Editing by Sami Aboudi)
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