Court set to rule on Sudan oil flashpoint

An international court of arbitration is to rule on Wednesday on the boundaries of the Sudanese oil district of Abyei, a dispute that has been a flashpoint for tensions between the Khartoum government and southern former rebels.

The United Nations has deployed additional peacekeepers to the district on the border between the Muslim north and the mainly Christian or animist south for fear that the ruling by the special tribunal sitting in The Hague might spark a recurrence of the violence that left 100 people dead there last year.

The clashes in May 2008 razed Abyei town and left tens of thousands homeless, most of them Ngok Dinka loyal to the south, who have long had tense relations with the district’s Messeria Arab nomads who are regarded as loyal to the north.

Analysts described the unrest as the most serious threat to the 2005 peace deal between the Khartoum government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which ended Africa’s longest-running civil war.

In a report earlier this month, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that the situation in Abyei “remains volatile and requires constant attention”.

“The past has shown that disputes over the status of Abyei and conflicts between local communities have the potential to create instability that could spiral into a major escalation,” he said in the July 14 report.

The Abyei Arbitration Tribunal appointed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration will rule on whether the original Abyei Border Commission (ABC), which drew up the current district boundaries, exceeded its mandate.

If it rules in favour of the ABC, the present border line will stand. If not, the tribunal will decide where the border will lie.

The boundary dispute is important because under the 2005 peace deal, Abyei will hold a referendum in 2011 on whether to retain special status within north Sudan, or join the south, where a simultaneous vote will be held on independence.

Many in south Sudan are counting on a “yes” vote for independence, and want it to extend over as much of Abyei’s oil fields as possible.

The north is determined to retain the precious resources.

UN special representative Ashraf Qazi said on Monday that he was “completely convinced” that both sides were committed to “the peaceful implementation of the Abyei award, no matter whether they are completely happy with it or not”.

But he added that reinforcements had been sent to beef up the existing peacekeeping force in the district as a precaution.

Ghazi Salahaldin, of the northern-based National Congress Party of President Omar al-Bashir, said: “We have committed ourselves to the arbitration and we are going to accept the ruling.”

Malik Agar of the former rebel SPLM, which heads an autonomous regional government in the south, said that violence was to be expected but that neither side would allow it to get out of hand.

“The decision, of course, will not be without disappointment to either party,” he said.

“We expect some violence may be there, but the two parties are prepared to quell any violence.”

The UN special representative expressed concern last week that armed groups involved in the fighting last May were reported to be in and around Abyei.

But on Monday he said that all unauthorised military units were pulling out of the district.

“We believe that action has been taken to ensure that the area will be clear of such elements, and that is very reassuring,” Qazi said.

Under the 2005 peace deal, the only forces allowed in Abyei are special joint north-south police and military units.—Sapa-AFP

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