Seizure of disputed province brings newly divided Sudan to brink of civil war

UN intervenes as North takes control of contested region

Sudan was back on the brink of civil war last night after an escalation in fighting over a province disputed between the north and south of Africa's largest country. Northern forces occupied the town of Abyei, which is claimed by both the Arab-led government in Khartoum and the government of southern Sudan, which voted this year to secede.

Map of Sudan: click here to download graphic (33k)

Authorities in the south accused the north of "an act of war" after three days of heavy fighting saw their forces pushed out of Abyei. "We didn't declare war," said the southern army spokesman Colonel Philip Aguer. "The National Congress Party and the Sudan armed forces declared war on us."

The government in Khartoum confirmed that it had occupied the area, but denied that it was provoking a war. "The Sudanese armed forces control Abyei and are cleansing it of illegal forces," said Amin Hassan Omar, a minister of state for presidential affairs.

The crisis comes only two months before Sudan was due to split in two, and threatens to plunge the country back into a damaging conflict.

Both the southern Dinka Ngok and the northern Arab Mussiriya tribes have fought for territorial control over the province, which has significant deposits of oil. Hundreds of people have fled Abyei in the last three days as the northern army responded to fighting in the area by sending in heavy armour and attacking the town.

The US condemned the operation over the weekend, criticising the southern forces for their actions but deploring the north's response as "disproportionate and irresponsible". "The actions being taken by the government of Sudan [the north] are blatant violations of the comprehensive peace agreement and threaten to undermine the mutual commitment of the CPA parties to avoid a return to war," the White House said in a statement.

As the south appealed to the international community to help dislodge northern soldiers – an appeal likely to fall on deaf ears – the UN last night condemned both sides in the conflict, calling on the north to withdraw from the region and criticising the south for an attack on a UN convoy on Thursday.

Abyei has been the chief sticking point preventing a peaceful divorce between the north and the south. Sudan was ravaged by a 20-year civil war between the Muslim-dominated north and the predominantly Christian south. The war claimed up to 2 million lives and emptied much of the south of the country. It ended with a peace deal in 2005 which established a power-sharing government and gave the south the right, after five years, to vote on separation from the north. That referendum went ahead without serious incident in January, and resulted in a near-total vote for secession.

Internationally brokered talks are underway over the division of Sudan's oil, most of which would lie to the south of a new border. The conflict in Abyei, which is primarily about rights of grazing and control of territory, has been harder to solve than even the future of the oil.

The people of Abyei were meant to have been given a vote in January on whether to join a new south Sudan or to remain with the north, but Khartoum blocked this poll.

The move was seen at the time as a tactic by the government of Omar al-Bashir to destabilise the south. Any resumption of full-scale fighting between the civil war foes could quickly spread westwards to Darfur, where Khartoum has been accused of war crimes and genocide over its response to a rebellion.

President Bashir has been indicted by the international criminal court for his role in orchestrating the violence in Darfur, but remains in office and won re-election despite international criticism and the imminent loss of the south.

Abyei was supposed to have been demilitarised under an international agreement but both sides have been building up forces in anticipation of a possible conflict. Tens of thousands of civilians have been living in temporary camps in Abyei, after leaving the north ahead of January's vote.

Sudan's bumpy road to separation

1956 – Independence from Britain is declared. Attacks by southern guerrilla groups against government forces become a regular occurrence.

1962 – The first civil war between southern rebels and the northern government begins. Hundreds of thousands are killed or displaced.

1972 – The war ends with the signing of the Addis Adaba peace treaty. The south formally becomes an autonomous region of Sudan.

1978 – In Bentiu, in southern Sudan, major oil reserves are uncovered.

1983 – The second Sudanese civil war breaks out. This time separatists are led by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), led by John Garang.

2005 January – The second civil war ends with promises of a referendum on independence for the south. John Garang becomes Sudan's vice president.

2005 October – A new autonomous southern government is formed, as dictated under a new constitution.

2011 January – Referendum on southern independence is held. The result is a vote in favour of independence.

2011 February – Fighting breaks out in the southern Jonglei state and near the disputed area of Abyei.

2011 March – South Sudan says it is abandoning discussions with the north in protest at the violence. LEO HORNAK

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?