News / Africa

Satellite Images Show Build-up of Northern Forces in Sudan’s Abyei Region

A 2009 aerial shot of Abyei town, south Sudan (File)
A 2009 aerial shot of Abyei town, south Sudan (File)

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Joe DeCapua

New satellite images of Sudan’s Abyei region reportedly show a build-up of forces backed by Khartoum government.

Abyei, along with its oil reserves, remains a contested region between the north and the soon-to-be-independent South Sudan.

Nathaniel Raymond, director of operations at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative for the Satellite Sentinel Project, says, “The latest imagery collected by DigitalGlobe satellites…shows three encampments inside the Abyei region, which corroborate reports of approximately 1,500 northern police backed by the government of Sudan moving into the Abyei region over the past few days.”

The encampments are located near Bongo, Goli and Diffra.

“Now, I want to be clear that we have seen activity at those positions before. What we are seeing is a severe spike in the amount of tents present at those positions consistent with reports that troops have moved into Abyei,” he says.

Any southern military response?

“At this point," he says, “we have collected and released imagery just specific to the north in this incident. But what we are doing now is basically tracking whether there is a corroborative and corresponding response from southern-aligned forces,” he says.

A report released two weeks ago by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative said southern forces were moving into Todach and Tajalei, which were burned in the past month, allegedly by Missiriya militia. Another village, Maker Abior, was also burned.

“We’re going to continue to monitor those points and look for any potential or corresponding buildup,” he says.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement bans military forces from Abyei. Now, the satellite images show a jockeying of forces into opposing positions.

“It’s a very dangerous situation," he says. “We now have a potentially deadly game of chess occurring, where forces…not supposed to be in this contested region are moving in facing one another and following each other’s move.”

Growing tensions before independence

The movement of military forces in and around Abyei comes as the south is preparing to officially declare its independence from the north in July. Southern voters approved secession in a January referendum.

“Since the succession referendum,” says Raymond, “we’ve seen a series of skirmishes in the contested region in Abyei, which was an issue not resolved by the referendum. But we’ve also seen militia groups skirmishing in the south with the Sudan’s Peoples’ Liberation Army. So basically we’ve seen a spike since the referendum.”

“That’s why this project is important – to deter violence on the ground before the secession,” he says.

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