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Sudan Fighting Results in Widespread Displacement


International agencies are still assessing the humanitarian situation around the disputed Sudanese town of Abyei, following days of fighting between northern and southern Sudanese forces. As Derek Kilner reports for VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi, the town has returned to calm but the fighting highlights concerns about the prospects for a 2005 peace agreement.

Fighting that began last week between the northern Sudan Armed Forces and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement has displaced tens of thousands. The fighting has left the town of Abyei in ruins and largely empty.

The U.N. has estimated that 60,000 to 70,000 people have been displaced. But Saleh Dabbakeh, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Sudan says reliable estimates are difficult to come by.

"There are a lot of displaced people. Nobody really knows the exact numbers, but it could be anywhere between 30,000 to 100,000 people. It's mainly estimates by people who have not been there," he said.

Insecurity has hampered efforts to make a full assessment. An initial ceasefire was secured on Sunday following the first round of clashes. But on Tuesday, fighting broke out again after southern troops attacked northern forces in the town.

Since Tuesday, Abyei has remained calm, but fears of further clashes remain. The UN had planned to hold talks between the two sides on Wednesday but those have been put on hold.

Members of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, in the southern capital of Juba for the party's national convention, say they are discussing a way forward. On Wednesday, the president of the semi-autonomous southern government, Salva Kiir - who is also Vice President in the national coalition government - criticized the North for targeting civilians in Abyei and for a lack of commitment to the agreement the two sides signed on the region.

Nevertheless both sides have reiterated their support for reaching a ceasefire as well as an agreement on replacing their troops with joint units composed of soldiers from both sides and establishing a temporary administrative body for the town.

Government spokesman Rabie Atti expressed optimism. "The situation now is quiet and there is a will from SPLM and the government to solve this problem and to establish a temporary government up to the completion of the demarcation of border between South and North," he said.

Beyond security concerns, Dabbakeh says access to the area is made difficult by poor roads, particularly during the current rainy season. Red Crescent staff have been sent to the area. But in the town itself, he says, the only ones to attend to are the dead.

"The main assignment of this team would be to bury dead people in the city, somewhere between 100 and 200 people. Nobody else is doing it," he said.

Control of the Abyei area, one of Sudan's main sources of oil, has been a major point of contention between the north and south. The north has refused to agree to a ruling on the area's boundaries by a commission established as part of the 2005 peace agreement.

The area is set to vote on whether to join the South or the North in 2011, at the same time as a separate referendum in the South on whether to secede from the North.

Both the North and South maintain large numbers of troops in Abyei, and analysts have long feared that a dispute in the area could trigger a resumption of broader conflict between the two sides.

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