Armed men burned and looted the flashpoint town of Abyei yesterday after days of violence involving northern and southern troops in the disputed region. Southern Sudan's military said it would defend its territory, while an Arab herdsman said his tribe is in Abyei to stay, an indication Sudan's peace could crumble before the south's July independence.
Violence flared late last week in Abyei, a no man's land between north and south Sudan. Southern Sudan voted in January to secede from the south, and the region becomes an independent country on July 9. But violence in Abyei is overshadowing the march toward independence.
The UN mission in Sudan said armed elements were burning and looting in Abyei and said the northern Sudanese Armed Forces must fulfill their responsibility to intervene to "stop these criminal acts."
In photos provided by the UN, the town appeared deserted except for what appeared to be looters. Some huts appeared to be ablaze; smoke billowed from others. Looters were seen roaming the streets, carrying rifles. Some carried suitcases. Others pulled carts carrying mats, pots and pans, sacks of grain and even bed frames.
Officials in the north indicated that the two sides could be brought back from the brink even as the south said it would respond with force if its territory is breached. A powerful Sudanese Arab tribal chief, meanwhile, said his tribesmen have entered the area with other Arab tribes, and that "Abyei is a northern town."
Both north and south claim Abyei, a fertile region near several large oil fields, and its disputed status has long been recognized as a potential trigger for violence. The ethnic African tribe of the Ngok Dinka and the Arab tribe of Misseriah both lay claim to the area.
Misseriah tribal chief Mukhtar Babu Nimr dismissed the calls and warnings by southerners and the U.N. Security Council, saying that for months the southerners have violated the Abyei protocol and no one complained.
"Abyei was occupied by the southern forces for six months, and there was not a single northern," he said. "No one said anything. Now hours after southerners leave, it is a problem. This is very strange."
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts who has written extensively on Sudan, said Khartoum could use the seizure of Abyei as leverage against Juba on other unresolved north-south issues — or it could extend the conflict to other oil areas.
"Either will lead to a spread of violence, quite possibly all-out war," he said. "The international community — and the U.S. in particular — has very little time in which to convince Khartoum that the costs of this assault will be too great to withstand, and to give peace a second chance."
Civilians fleeing the violence in Abyei are moving farther south — from the town of Agok toward Turalei — because of fears of more attacks, said Gustavo Fernandez, an official with medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres. Children fleeing the conflict are walking long distances by themselves and risking dehydration during the journey, he said.