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Southern Sudan Official Fears Return to War

A leading member of southern Sudan's main political party has said the country is "on the brink" of a renewed north-south war. As Derek Kilner reports for VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi, recent clashes between northern and southern troops in the border town of Abyei have displaced tens of thousands.

Control of Abyei, an oil-rich area on the disputed border of north and south Sudan, has long been a major stumbling block in implementing the country's 2005 peace agreement. When several days of fighting broke out in Abyei town earlier this month, between the northern Sudan Armed Forces and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army, observers warned of a possible resumption of the 20-year conflict.

At a news conference late Monday, the secretary- general of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, Pagan Amum, echoed that concern.

"War is not a good option. It is a possibility," Amum said. "We are at the brink of war as we speak. Clashes have already happened. Forces are building up. SAF is building up and I am sure this will get a response from the SPLA. It is because of the violation of the CPA. It is because of the burning down of the whole town and villages around it. Definitely such a situation is a serious deterioration."

The town has remained calm for the past week, and the vice president of the semi-autonomous southern region, Riek Machar has met with a vice president in the national government, Ali Osman Taha, to discuss the crisis.

Government spokesman Rabie Atti says the two have agreed to implement an earlier agreement on withdrawing northern and southern forces from the area, replacing them with joint units composed of troops from both sides, and establishing a temporary administrative body in the area.

"I think now steps are going forward to formulate the local authority in Abyei," Atti said. "And this area of Abyei should be controlled from the security point of view by the joint forces."

But the two sides have agreed to implement such measures several times in the past, with little result.

Frustration with the north's lack of action on the issue was at the center of the south's decision to temporarily suspend its Cabinet ministers from the national unity government last year. The ministers rejoined the government when President Omar al-Bashir and southern President Salva Kiir agreed to work toward implementing the peace agreement's provisions on Abyei. But as the recent clashes demonstrated, tensions have only grown higher since then.

The 2005 peace agreement established a commission to determine the boundaries of Abyei area, one of the major sources of Sudanese oil, but the north has rejected the findings. The agreement also calls for the residents of Abyei to vote in 2011 on whether to join the north or the south, at the same time as the south votes on whether to secede from the north.

But who qualifies as a resident of Abyei is also in dispute. The north wants Misseriya Arabs who herd their cattle in the area to be considered residents, in addition to the members of the Ngok Dinka, who have generally supported the south. The south says the north is using attacks to prevent residents displaced during the war from resettling in the area, where they could vote against the north.

Both sides also maintain large numbers of troops in the area, heightening the risk that a local dispute could touch of a more serious conflict.

Mr. Amum also said the international community should be doing more to avert the crisis, including putting pressure on the governing National Congress Party in the north.

"International community has been standing by and watching and they lacked any program, they did not have enough pressures to exercise to bear on the National Congress to implement the CPA," Amum said.

The United Nations maintains some 400 Zambian peacekeepers in Abyei town, but their mandate does not include enforcing the peace, and their presence had little impact on the recent clashes.