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Sudanese Nomads Threaten War if Excluded from Abyei Referendum

Southern Sudanese artists stand next to a painted sign in the southern capital of Juba urging people to register for the upcoming independence referendum, 30 Sep 2010
Southern Sudanese artists stand next to a painted sign in the southern capital of Juba urging people to register for the upcoming independence referendum, 30 Sep 2010

Nomads from the contested Abyei region of Sudan have promised violence if denied a vote in the upcoming referendum to determine the region's allegiance in the event of southern secession. Defining the borders of the oil-producing region has become a critical part of negotiations leading up to the south's vote.

With tensions mounting just three months before a critical referendum on secession in southern Sudan, deadlock surrounding the status of the Abyei region has presented another threat to the stability of post-referendum Sudan.

In an interview Wednesday with Reuters, the head of the nomadic Missiriya tribe, Mokhtar Babo Nimr, warned that his group would use force if not allowed to participate in a plebiscite being held alongside the southern referendum.

Reuters reports an estimated 2,000 people gathered in the West Kordofan town of Muglad to demand inclusion in the vote. The group presented U.N. representatives with a set of demands that included a review of Abyei's borders.

Abyei continues to be a sticking point in critical negotiations between the north and south before the votes on January 9. Analysts are increasingly worried that the deadlock could delay or prevent the critical vote and plunge the region back into war.

At the opening of the U.N. General Assembly last week, United States President Barack Obama held a separate meeting between Southern President Salva Kiir and Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha to move negotiations on Abyei forward. According to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley, the talks laid the groundwork for an agreement in the near future.

"The teams and our Sudan team will meet again next month in Addis Ababa," said Crowley. "And we would expect that the parties should come to that meeting prepared to reach an agreement on Abyei. Abyei is our immediate focus. There are clear responsibilities that both North and South have. And while we worked through some of the issues this weekend, we expect that both sides, particularly Khartoum, needs to come to the next meeting prepared to reach an agreement."

Abyei, which lies within three Sudanese states along the north-south border, has long been a point of contention between North and South. The region experienced some of the heaviest fighting during the first and second Sudanese civil wars, and has become even more valuable since large quantities of oil were discovered in 1979.

On January 9, South Sudan is widely expected to vote for secession and form an independent nation. The same day, residents of Abyei will choose whether to align themselves with the north or south, in the event of southern secession.

But disagreements between North and South Sudan have stalled preparations for the Abyei vote. Part of the problem is the Missiriya tribe.

Traditionally aligned with the North, Missiriya in central Sudan claim the northern Abyei region as part of their traditional grazing area. The group fears it will lose the right to use the land should Abyei become part of South Sudan.

The government in Khartoum has taken up the group's cause, demanding that Missiriya be allowed to vote in the upcoming plebiscite. But that demand has sparked disagreement over who should be considered a resident of the region. The South also has accused the north of sending members of the tribe to Abyei in advance of the vote to influence the results.