Rivals sign deal to demilitarise Abyei region

North and South Sudan have signed an agreement to demilitarise the disputed Abyei region and allow in Ethiopian peacekeeping forces, former South African president Thabo Mbeki said yesterday.

South Sudan is due to break off into an independent country in less than three weeks and the question of who will control the fertile, oil-producing region has been a fiercely contentious issue ahead of the split.

Khartoum seized Abyei's main town on 21 May, causing tens of thousands of people to flee, triggering an international outcry and raising fears that the two sides could return to open conflict. Representatives of the South's dominant party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), and the Sudanese government have been meeting in Ethiopia's capital of Addis Ababa for more than a week to try to reach a deal.

"The SPLM and the Sudanese government have signed an agreement on Abyei," Mr Mbeki, who has been helping guide talks between the two sides, told reporters in Addis Ababa. "It provides for the demilitarisation of Abyei so that the Sudanese armed forces would withdraw and for the deployment of Ethiopian forces."

Southerners voted overwhelmingly to secede from the North in a January referendum that was the culmination of a peace deal in 2005 ending decades of civil war.

Some two million people died in the conflict, fought over religion, ideology, ethnicity and oil.