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May 23, 2011

Northern Sudan Official Outlines Abyei Peace Issues

As northern Sudanese troops continue to occupy Abyei - an area both north and south Sudan claim as their own - a Sudanese official has outlined what he says are major stumbling blocks to peace in the area.

The Sudanese ambassador to Kenya, Kamal Ismail Saeed, told reporters in Nairobi that northern government troops would pull out of Abyei once outstanding issues are resolved.

"Yes, we have received several calls and appeals from different corners of the world for the withdrawal of our forces," said Saeed. "We said, 'OK, we are open for any type of negotiations,' we would like to sit and agree. Whenever we agree, we will be in line with that agreement."

Saeed did not specify what the subject of those specific negotiations would be. But during his statement, he named several issues of concern to Khartoum.

Saeed said the May 21st occupation of the disputed area by the Sudanese Armed Forces was the result of what he calls 24 "provocations" by forces of the southern Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army. He said the last straw was the May 19 attack on an SAF convoy, allegedly the work of the SPLA.

"I think that was a serious blow, which ended the continuous patience and self-restraint of SAF, so it responded in self-defense, and as a matter of fact, it has knocked out all aggressors in the area," said Saeed.

He also decried the postponement of a referendum that was supposed to be held in Abyei in January, in which the people of the area would have voted on whether to join north or south Sudan. Saeed accuses the southern Sudanese government of restricting who could vote in that referendum.

Southern Sudanese government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin could not be reached for comment, despite repeated attempts. But the spokesman was quoted in news reports as saying that it is an "absolute lie" the SPLA is trying to enforce its presence in Abyei.

He told the French news agency that last Saturday's attack, in his words, "is an illegal invasion and breaks all the peace agreements, endangering the lives of thousands of civilians."

The U.N. Security Council has called for the northern government to withdraw its troops from Abyei immediately.

North and south Sudan were at war for more than two decades, which ended with both sides signing a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.

Southerners voted overwhelmingly to separate from the north in a January 2011 referendum that was part of the CPA. South Sudan is scheduled to become an independent country on July 9, but many fear this might not happen because of the Abyei dispute.

Fouad Hikmat is African Union and Sudan Special Advisor for the International Crisis Group. He said he thinks the two sides can reach an agreement on the Abyei issue before the July 9 independence date.

"There is now a characteristic of the Sudanese politicians that things are always resolved in the last five seconds before midnight," said Hikmat. "Then, for the moment, what is important is that the situation does not escalate (into violence)."

Hikmat said that both sides can use the Abyei Protocol created under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement to resolve the issue even beyond the July 9 independence date.