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Thousands Displaced after Fighting on Sudan's North-South Border


Thousands of people remain displaced following two days of clashes in the town of Abyei on the border between North and South Sudan. As Derek Kilner reports from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi, the disputed area is seen as a potential flashpoint for a return to the North-South conflict.

The clashes between members of the Sudan Armed Forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army, former rebels now governing Sudan's semi-autonomous southern region began Tuesday night.

Thousands of residents have fled the town of Abyei. Official figures on casualties are not available, but the U.N. says reports from the two sides indicate that about 10 fighters have been killed.

Northern and southern officials agreed to a ceasefire Thursday, though occasional gunfire continued into the early morning Friday. The town has since returned to quiet, but wary residents have not returned to the town, and shops remain closed, according to the U.N.

Southern Sudan's Minister for President Affairs, Luka Biong Deng, who visited the town Friday, described the situation as a humanitarian crisis. "We saw hundreds of people, even thousands of people, displaced, walking. And actually, children are dying of thirst and hunger," he said. "They have scattered all over in the forest."

The United Nations has evacuated the bulk of its non-military employees in the town, leaving a contingent of some 400 Zambian peacekeepers and a skeleton civilian staff. Many international NGOs have also evacuated their employees.

The cause of the clashes remains unclear. Some media reports describe a local skirmish between northern and southern soldiers. But Deng says the fighting is a deliberate attempt by northern forces to drive southerners out of the town.

"It is a clear case of the Sudan Armed Forces displacing people who have just returned recently from the North," said Deng. "They started settling down and here they have been moved out of their settlement to under the trees. The intention was not killing, the attention was to scare the people to run away from the town, so they can resettle other communities."

A 2005 peace agreement ended the 21-year civil war between north and south, but the two sides have failed to agree on the borders of the Abyei area - one of Sudan's biggest sources of oil - or on how it should be governed.

Both sides maintain large numbers of troops in the area, despite an agreement that they be replaced by units composed of soldiers from both sides. Many analysts say clashes in the region could risk escalation that would threaten the peace agreement. A spokesman for the U.N. mission in Sudan, Khaled Mansour, says the current clashes do not jeopardize the agreement, but do highlight the danger that exists.

"I wouldn't say it's threatening the peace agreement," he said. "But I would say it again shows how fragile the situation in Abyei is. Any time you have a small event or development or you have one person killed even by mistake it can flare up very quickly into something that can indeed even threaten the peace agreement."

In recent months, there have been a series of clashes between southern soldiers and militia from the Misseriya Arab community in Abyei, which the south says has been mobilized by Khartoum in an attempt to prevent southerners displaced by the war from returning and resettling.

The 2005 peace agreement calls for Abyei's residents to decide in 2011 on whether to stay with the north, or join the south. The south in turn is set to vote at the same time on whether to secede from the north. The north thus risks losing control over the area, along with its oil supply.

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