Militiamen backed by the Sudanese government are heading south to the flashpoint town of Abyei as satellite images show troops, tanks and helicopters deploying, the United Nations said on Wednesday.
Heavily armed fighters of the nomadic Arab Misseriya tribe, key allies of the Khartoum government in the 1983 to 2005 civil war between north and south, were moving towards the soon-to-be-independent south, UN peacekeepers said.
UN mission spokesperson Hua Jiang said: “Militia that appear to be Misseriya are moving southwards. Abyei town is deserted of civilians.”
Southern officials say that the pro-northern Misseriya, a cattle-herding people who traditionally move through Abyei each year with their animals for water and pasture, are now entering Abyei in large numbers.
But that claim was dismissed as propaganda by a Misseriya tribal leader.
“It is nonsense, propaganda,” said Sadiq Babo Nimer.
“There are no Misseriya tribesmen in Abyei for the simple reason that it is rainy season and Misseriya do not bring their cattle to Abyei before October,” he said.
Thousands of Abyei residents — mainly southern-supporting Dinka Ngok people — have fled across the border into the south and scores of houses have been set on fire and property looted in the northern-controlled areas, the officials say.
A monitoring group said satellite images indicated evidence of “war crimes” committed by the northern army.
“These images provide supporting documentary evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Abyei,” said John Bradshaw, director of the Enough Project campaign group, part of the coalition backing the satellite work.
The Satellite Sentinel Project, which obtained and analysed the images, said they showed “evidence of attacks by armoured vehicles and the destruction of villages”.
US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice warned of the “grave humanitarian consequences” of the seizure of Abyei by Khartoum troops as she and other Security Council delegates held talks in the southern regional capital Juba on Tuesday.
Rice said there were “horrific reports of looting and burning”.
The UN’s Hua Jiang said four peacekeeping helicopters were fired on as they took off from their Abyei base on Tuesday although these had not been hit.
Misseriya spokesperson Babo Nimer said his tribe had no connection to the incident and that it had “no problems” with the UN mission or the international community.
But Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir rejected calls to pull the troops out.
Al-Bashir has given a “green light” to the north’s Sudan Armed Forces to “respond to any violations” by southern forces, the official Suna news agency said late on Tuesday.
In a defiant speech in Khartoum, he scoffed at warnings from Washington to withdraw his forces or risk jeopardising lucrative US efforts to normalise ties.
“Sudan is not greedy for the carrot of America, and does not fear from its stick,” Bashir was quoted as saying.
Abyei, a fertile border district claimed by both north and south, was due to vote on its future in January alongside a referendum on independence for the south, which delivered a landslide for secession.
But Abyei’s plebiscite did not happen amid arguments as to who was eligible to vote. On Saturday, northern troops and tanks overran the district.
The southern government has demanded that northern troops withdraw immediately.
The Satellite Sentinel Project, which provided the images, was set up by Hollywood star and human rights activist George Clooney last year.
The north’s seizure of Abyei, in the run-up to the planned international recognition of southern independence in July, has been condemned by major powers. — Sapa-AFP