Sudan’s Abyei region awash with arms and anger «

    Sudan’s Abyei region awash with arms and anger

    ABYEI, Sudan (AFP) – As Sudan’s leaders struggle to reach a deal on its bitterly contested status ahead of southern independence in July, armed young men roam the streets of Abyei, the flashpoint border town where resentment towards Khartoum runs high. Fresh in the minds of the local population are the attacks by Arab militia, in late February and early March, in which scores of people were killed and hundreds of houses burned in separate raids on three Dinka villages, the African tribe to which virtually all the town’s residents belong. General Mario Kuol, Abyei’s southern-appointed acting chief administrator, accuses the Sudanese army (SAF) of failing to intervene. “Before Tajalei village was burned, on March 5, I heard that the Arab militias were coming to attack the area. I informed the JIU (joint forces) commander from the SAF that he had to protect the villages, because we had withdrawn our police,” he said. Three hundred buildings were destroyed in Tajalei alone, according to satellite images released by a US monitoring group, which one Sudan expert said this month were reminiscent of the devastation caused by the janjaweed militia in Darfur. Observers, including the UN Mission in Sudan’s force commander, have since warned of a build-up of military weapons in Abyei that could escalate the violence in the disputed area. General Kuol complains that northern police have kept the main road linking Abyei to the north closed since December, and that forces backed by Khartoum are occupying a swathe of the region that includes the Diffra oil field. “Three-quarters of the northern part of the Abyei area has been occupied by Arab militias. They have taken it as their own land. But the land belongs to the Dinka,” he said. Tensions have been boiling since January, when a plebiscite due to be held alongside the south’s referendum on self-determination, to determine Abyei’s own future, was shelved with the two sides at loggerheads over whether the Misseriya, a tribe of Arab nomads, should be eligible to participate. The Misseriya, who were a key proxy militia of Khartoum?s army during the 1983-2005 civil war against southern rebels, migrate to Abyei each dry season to find water and pasture for their livestock. They insist they should have the same voting rights as the pro-southern Dinka Ngok, who live there all year, and fear their migration routes could be blocked by a new international border. At least one of the three main routes was blocked by the southern army this year, according to a UN source, who said both sides had been “very lucky” that last year’s rains have provided enough water to see the Misseriya through the dry season, which is about to end. Drought could have sparked off a new round of fighting, given the history of mistrust, the weapons in circulation and the politicisation of the Abyei issue, a key bargaining chip in the pre-partition negotiations between Khartoum and Juba. This week, a technical committee is due to meet in Abyei town in the latest bid to implement a peace accord signed by the north and south in January, which calls on all forces to withdraw from the area except for special joint units of northern and southern troops and UN peacekeepers. Somewhat predictably, no one is expecting much to come from it. “Now the military build-up is such that I doubt whether these technical committees will be able to withdraw the armed groups,” said Charles Abyei, the chairman of the region’s legislative council, who believes the north is simply “using” the Misseriya to control the region’s oil. “Even the youth in Abyei have taken up their weapons. Everyone here is armed. It is a critical situation,” he added. For many of Abyei’s youth, carrying a gun is the inevitable consequence of a lack of other opportunities in this underdeveloped area, which has no mains power supply and no hospital, despite its oil wealth and fertility. Years of neglect by Khartoum, on top of the strong cultural and political links to the south, mean that whatever the status of the negotiations come July, Abyei’s residents will celebrate southern independence. “Even though Abyei is still in the north, for us it doesn’t mean anything. We are with the south,” said General Kuol.

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