North and south Sudanese negotiators are reporting progress on a range of difficult issues that need to be settled before the South becomes independent in July. But the potentially explosive issue of control over the oil-rich Abyei region is being put aside for settlement at a higher level.

The recent deadly flare-up in Abyei was on everyone?s mind during five days of talks on matters that were either too complex or too sensitive to settle before South Sudan?s independence referendum.

The importance of these talks was underlined by the presence of Southern People?s Liberation Movement Secretary-General Pagan Amum even though he is being treated for malaria. The government side was led by a minister in President Omar al-Bashir?s office.

But Abyei is considered too sensitive even for these high-level talks. The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders says tens of thousands of people have fled Abyei in the past week after an outbreak of fighting left at least 70 people dead.

The leader of the African Union mediation panel for Sudan, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, says the sensitivity of the Abyei issue requires that it be taken up at the highest level.

?In 10 days or thereabouts, we will be having a meeting of President Bashir and First Vice President Salva Kiir, the president of the Government of Southern Sudan on the Abyei matter. Last time the panel had an interaction with them on the issue they had agreed they would try to have it resolved by the end of March. But even this violence that erupted now emphasizes the point that this matter should be resolved,? said Mbeki.

Observers reported a harmonious atmosphere at this opening session on issues ranging from oil-revenue sharing to settling $38 billion in external debt to the establishment of a South Sudanese currency. The two sides agreed to make a joint appeal for debt relief at upcoming World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings.

A separate ad hoc committee on border demarcation is said to have reached agreement on 80% of the frontier, though the final 20% will be the hardest. Mbeki expressed confidence all outstanding issues could be settled in time for the July 9th independence date.

?There is a shared commitment between the two Sudanese parties to resolve these issues, and indeed to make sure there is no return to war. Indeed, that is why the matter of Abyei it was decided it would be dealt with not even at the level of the secretary-general here, but it must be dealt with at the level of the presidents,? said Mbeki.

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, that ended more than two decades of war in Sudan called for Abyei?s status to be settled by a referendum. The poll was to be held at the same time as the independence referendum, but was called off, partly because of disagreement over who would be eligible to vote.

Mbeki said a referendum remains one of the options being looked at to settle the sensitive issue.

The next session of broader talks will be held next month, probably again in Ethiopia. Settlement of these outstanding issues is expected to be the final push in completing the terms of the CPA.