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US Names New Sudan Envoy Amid Concern Over Abyei

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to Ambassador Princeton Lyman, during the announcement of his appointment as the new U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan, March 31, 2011, at the State Department in Washington.

The Obama administration on Thursday named veteran diplomat Princeton Lyman as its new special envoy for Sudan. The announcement came amid growing U.S. concern about tensions in Sudan’s central Abyei region that threaten the country’s north-south peace process.

Lyman came out of retirement last year to become the administration’s advisor on Sudan’s north-south negotiations, and he is taking on the wider role of Sudan special envoy amid worrisome north-south tension in Abyei.

The status of oil-rich Abyei, which straddles Sudan’s north-south dividing line, remains undecided despite January’s referendum in which southerners voted for independence.

Reports in recent days speak of a military buildup by both sides in Abyei, which is nominally demilitarized under Sudan’s 2005 peace accord.

At a press event introducing Lyman as the administration’s choice to replace former U.S. Air Force General Scott Gration as Sudan envoy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concern about what she called the "dangerous standoff" in Abyei.

"We call on both sides to take immediate steps to prevent future attacks and restore calm. Violence is simply unacceptable. The deployment of forces by both side is in violation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and undermines the goodwill from January’s referendum, which was a very important foundation for the peaceful future of Sudan," he said.

Abyei was supposed to vote in January on whether to become part of the north or south, but the polling was postponed because of disputes over voter eligibility.

Clinton, with new envoy Lyman at her side, praised the Sudanese government’s role in allowing the vote in the south to be held without coercion and for moving the process forward since January with a spirit of cooperation.

The Obama administration has laid out a "road map" for normalizing relations with Khartoum that is dependent on its cooperation. Lyman told reporters he expects a decision removing Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism at the time the south becomes independent in July.

Lyman, a former Assistant Secretary of State, also credited the Khartoum government with helping to revive long-running negotiations in the Qatari capital, Doha, among Sudan and rebel groups on a settlement of the Darfur conflict.

"What’s happened most recently is that the Doha process has suddenly taken on life. JEM [i.e., the Justice and Equality Movement], which is one of the big rebel groups, has now rejoined the process. They’re working from the same text. [Sudanese] President [Omar al-] Bashir was there yesterday saying we support the Doha process, which is a step forward because they weren’t clear on that. So that’s an important step," he said.

Lyman said the U.S. diplomatic point man for Darfur, Dane Smith, will return to the region next week, and that he himself will leave Washington Saturday on his first mission as special envoy, for meetings in Sudan and Ethiopia.

Scott Gration, the previous U.S. Sudan envoy, has been named by President Barack Obama to be the next U.S. ambassador to Kenya.