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Sudanese Parties Agree to Demilitarize Tense Abyei Region

North and South Sudan have agreed in principle to demilitarize the tense Abyei border region and invite Ethiopian troops to keep peace along the disputed frontier. The talks are entering a third day, bogged down over questions of how Abyei is to be administered after the south secedes July 9.

Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir left the Ethiopian capital late Monday after two days of difficult talks with southern Sudanese leader Salva Kiir. The talks, under the guidance of a panel led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, are to continue Tuesday with a deputy taking over for Mr. Bashir.

Mbeki panel spokesman Barney Afako said the two sides had tentatively agreed to withdraw all forces from the heavily militarized Abyei region before the south secedes. They also agreed to accept deployment of Ethiopian peacekeeping troops.

But Afako conceded a lot must be done to ensure a smooth transition on July 9. "In principle the two parties agreed to the demilitarization. They agreed to a role for the Ethiopian forces. What is now left is to look at the proposals that the panel has put for this period. And as you know there are a lot of details to be worked out," he said.

A senior diplomat close to the talks says one of the big stumbling blocks is the future administration of Abyei. The north is said to be insisting on equal representation on any administrative body. Southern leaders argue a 50-50 split would not reflect the ethnic makeup of the region.

Spokesman Afako says two days of negotiating had failed to break the impasse on the Abyei question. "The question of the administration of Abyei is still on the agenda. How do you constitute an administration that ensures that the events that have just taken place, that we’ve seen the past few weeks do not repeat themselves. I think that is an issue on which we’re going to see more representations from the parties, and they’ll be engaging each other on that point," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met briefly with negotiators for both sides during a visit to Addis Ababa Monday. Her visit was cut short, however, because of a volcanic eruption in nearby Eritrea.

In a speech at the African Union, she applauded efforts to reach a negotiated settlement on contentious issues, in keeping with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended decades of civil war in Sudan. "South Sudan is less than one month away from becoming the world’s newest state, and the governments of Sudan and South Sudan have made laudable progress in implementing certain provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, but recent developments along the border, particularly in the Abyei region, are deeply troubling," she said.

Speaking to reporters in Tanzania earlier in the day, Clinton welcomed Ethiopia’s offer of peacekeeping troops as part of a United Nations mission. She said the mission would be eventually strengthened beyond the initial two Ethiopian battalions. She did not elaborate.

The secretary of state’s visit to Addis Ababa briefly overlapped with President Bashir’s, but US officials said the two did not meet. Mr. Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges.