South Sudan’s vice-president flew to Khartoum on Saturday on a mission to “ease tensions” over Abyei, one week after northern troops overran the contested border region, a southern official said.
“A high level delegation, led by the Vice-President Riek Machar, has gone to Khartoum,” said Mangar Amerdid, a spokesperson in the office of the southern president.
“It is aimed as an effort to normalise and ease tensions, and to improve the situation in Abyei,” he added, but could not confirm who the southern team would meet in the north.
“This is an important mission on a very important matter, and we are hoping for a good reception,” he said.
The surprise visit came as the northern National Congress Party and the south Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) were to meet in Addis Ababa on Saturday for talks also to be attended by the African Union panel on Sudan and South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki.
Khartoum’s chief Abyei negotiator Al-Dirdiri Mohammed Ahmed said on Friday that the northern government was “open” to negotiations with the south.
South Sudan leader Salva Kiir had called for a complete withdrawal of Sudanese government forces from Abyei, insisting the south did not want a return to war.
The northern troops have deployed as far south as the River Kiir, known in northern Sudan as Bahr al-Arab, which has become the frontline between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and southern troops.
Thousands have been displaced by the fighting.
A southern Sudanese minister said more than 150 000 people have fled violence ravaging the border region and surrounding areas since May 21 when northern troops and tanks took control.
However, the United Nations says it can only confirm that up to 40 000 people are displaced.
Abyei’s future is the most sensitive of a raft of issues that the two sides had been struggling to reach agreement on before the south’s full independence in July.
Abyei has become a “ghost town”, where only Sudanese soldiers and allied Misseriya tribesmen are present, said a spokesperson for the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS).
Yusuf Mohammed Ismail, a leader of the nomadic Misseriya Arab tribe, said on Friday that members of his clan were involved in the fighting in Abyei and would “not withdraw from Abyei even if the SAF withdraws”.
He charged that the United Nations wanted to “hand Abyei to the south … We reject the holding of a referendum, even if it gives the Misseriya the right to vote”.
A staunch ally of the government in Khartoum, the Misseriya tribe migrates every year in the dry season towards Bahr al-Arab river, which marks the southern border of Abyei, seeking pastures and fresh waters for their cattle.
The historic rivalry of these northern Arab nomads with the southern Dinka Ngok is the main source of the conflict in Abyei and raises the spectre of a new civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian south, six years after they signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
After deadly clashes in 2008, the former southern rebels and the government in the north brought their dispute before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
The tribunal reduced the size of Abyei to the territory historically held by the Dinka Ngok and the remaining areas, where oil wells are concentrated, were granted to the north.
The agreement was accepted by the north and south but not by the Misseriya.
Abyei was due to vote on its future in January alongside a referendum on independence for the south but the decision was indefinitely postponed due to a dispute over the Misseriya’s voting rights.
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. — AFP