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South Sudan Withdraws from Expected Talks with US in Khartoum

Ministers from South Sudan say they will not participate in talks between Sudan and the United States to normalize relations after 11 years of Washington-imposed sanctions. Southern Sudanese officials say the talks, expected to begin later this week in Khartoum, should not take place while the North and South remain bitterly divided over the status of the oil-rich Abyei region. VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

South Sudan Minister for Presidential Affairs Luka Biong Deng tells VOA the former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement holds Khartoum responsible for deadly clashes in Abyei two weeks ago between Sudanese government forces and southern troops.

The fighting was the worst since both sides signed a peace accord in 2005, which ended more than two decades of civil war and created a coalition government in Khartoum.

Deng says as many as 100,000 people have been displaced, and he accuses northern troops of committing atrocities against civilians.

"We have suspended our participation in the dialogue between the Sudan government and the U.S. government because what happened in Abyei is a clear violation of human rights of the people," said Deng.

Some SPLM officials have publicly stated that they believe the Bush administration's engagement with Khartoum encouraged the government of President Omar al-Bashir to attack Abyei.

The northern government accuses the south of starting the fighting that destroyed the main town and killed an unknown number of northern and southern troops.

The United States imposed sanctions on Sudan in 1997. But the visit to Khartoum this week by U.S. special envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson follows a series of direct talks between Bush administration officials and Mr. Bashir's government.

The last round took place in April, 2007 in Rome, where the envoy met with a Sudanese delegation that included a senior southern official.

The talks have been criticized by some U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups, who say the United States should not have contact with a government that once sheltered al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and is accused of committing atrocities in the civil war with southern Sudan and genocide in a separate conflict with rebels in the western Darfur region.

Williamson has downplayed the current engagement, noting that President Bashir's government needs to show verifiable progress in north-south relations and in Darfur in order for the talks to continue.

SPLM officials say the conflict in Abyei could unravel the unity government in Khartoum and restart the civil war.

Abyei lies near oil fields that are claimed by both sides and are vital to Khartoum's oil revenues. The boundaries of region were left undecided in the 2005 peace deal, leaving the residents of Abyei to decide whether to join the north or the south in a referendum to be held in 2011.