News / Africa

Sudan Government Cancels UN Meetings, Captures Disputed Abyei Town

A UNMIS peacekeeper patrol in Abyei, Sudan, March 11, 2011
A UNMIS peacekeeper patrol in Abyei, Sudan, March 11, 2011

Sudan has rebuffed attempts by the United Nations Security Council to intervene in a territorial dispute that threatens to mar the birth of a new Southern Sudanese state. The council responded with a strong warning that nothing should come in the way of the South’s independence in July.

The Security Council’s two-day mission to Sudan got off to a bumpy start on Sunday when meetings with Foreign Minister Ali Karti and Vice President Ali Osman Taha were abruptly canceled.  The meetings had been planned as the centerpiece of U.N. efforts to mediate the north-south dispute over control of the oil-producing Abyei region.

The Security Council had not planned to meet Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is under International Criminal Court indictment for war crimes in Darfur.

The council responded to the canceled meetings with a statement read to journalists by the current council president, French Ambassador Gerard Araud. "I should emphasize that it’s very rare that the Security Council expresses itself this way, out of New York.  The members of the Security Council are gravely concerned about the rapidly deteriorating situation in Abyei," he said.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin called the canceled meetings a missed chance to seek a diplomatic solution on a potentially explosive issue. "We regret that an important opportunity was missed for the Sudanese government to express its concerns to the international community through the members of the Security Council," he said.

As the Security Council’s plane touched down Saturday night for the first leg of the visit, news was coming in that government forces had captured Abyei’s main town after several hours of bombing and shelling.  The town’s 20,000 residents were reported to have fled as the troops moved in.

Sunday's Security Council statement condemned what it called “the escalatory military operations being conducted by the Sudanese Armed Forces,” and it warned against any attempt to manipulate “events on the ground” for political gain.

Ambassador Churkin lamented that the situation in Abyei had forced cancelation of a scheduled Security Council visit to the disputed region. "As we were heading toward Khartoum we were confronted with a situation of aggravated tension in the Abyei area.  In fact, we were supposed to go to the Abyei area, but that trip had to be canceled.  Under those circumstances, we decided that the members of the Security Council needed to respond to the situation," he said.

Churkin emphasized the council’s determination not to allow anything to stand in the way of the Southern Sudanese people's desire for a July 9 independence day. "I think there is a certain misunderstanding that something may happen which might derail the independence of Southern Sudan.  This is not the case at all.  Whatever happens, come July 9, the republic of Southern Sudan is going to become independent on that day," he said.

U.N. officials Sunday said the town of Abyei remains under control of government troops, although southern forces were reported massing in the area.  U.N. Mission in Sudan Spokesman Hua Jiang said U.N. peacekeepers in the town were confined to their compound because of security concerns, but had observed looting and fires in the area.

A mid-level Sudanese official who did meet the Security Council ambassadors blamed the south for provoking the military action in Abyei by shooting at a U.N.-escorted government convoy last week.  He suggested that the U.N. Mission in Sudan should, in his words, “pack their bags and wait for July 9”, a reference to the date the peacekeeping operation’s mandate expires.  

The Security Council continues its Sudan mission on Monday with a visit to the southern capital, Juba.  The schedule calls for a meeting with the South’s president, Salva Kiir.

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