Observers continue to express concern that Sudan is on the brink of a return to a full-scale civil war, despite ongoing attempts to defuse tension between opposing forces in the south and the north of the country. In 2005, a peace agreement ended more than two decades of conflict between the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and President Omar al-Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) government in Khartoum. But relations are once again strained after clashes in the oil-rich area of Abyei, which is claimed by both the SPLM and the NCP. The two parties have since agreed to have international arbiters resolve the dispute. But scores of people have been killed and tens of thousands remain displaced. In the first part of a five-part series on Abyei, VOA's Darren Taylor reports on the aftermath and context of the latest outbreak of violence in Sudan.

Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, one of the SPLM's chief negotiators with the Khartoum government, says it's going to take "many years" to rebuild Abyei. 

"It is actually a no man's land now," he says. Gatkuoth blames President al-Bashir's Sudan Armed Forces for "razing" the town, but the Khartoum government says it was provoked into attacking Abyei when the SPLM began "flooding" the region with fighters ? a claim the southerners deny. The United States government says both parties are responsible for the flare-up.

Roger Winter, who was the US Special Representative to Sudan from 2001 to 2006 and helped to write the protocol about Abyei in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), recently returned from a visit to the area on behalf of the Enough Project, in Washington, D.C.

He says Abyei has "virtually has ceased to exist. The population of the town is entirely gone?. The markets and the buildings, the houses, the residential homes and so forth were entirely burned."

Winter is adamant that the destruction of Abyei should never have happened: "In theory, the town should have been largely demilitarized" in terms of the peace deal. But forces from both the north and south have remained in the contentious region, not wanting to allow their rivals complete authority over Abyei.

Winter says at the time of the violence in the area, "there were some police capacities in town, and then there was what's called the Joint Integrated Unit, which consisted of soldiers from the government in Khartoum, and soldiers that represented the government of southern Sudan. It's called the Joint Integrated Unit, but it was neither 'joint' nor 'integrated.' They were actually two separate groups of soldiers."

Winter says because of this situation Abyei has remained "extremely tense," despite the peace agreement.

United Nations soldiers, mainly from Zambia, were also in Abyei to try to keep the peace. But they were unable to do so.

"Those U.N. soldiers largely remained in their barracks area, in the U.N. compound, a secure area with machine gun posts around the perimeter and barbed wire and such. So mainly they were confined there," Winter comments. "When we talked to the civilian administration of the U.N., they said that they had not been able to go into the town of Abyei itself (because) it was considered unsafe, (and) when they tried they were turned back by the personnel of Brigade 31, which is the government force that did most of this mayhem."

Winter blames the Abyei conflagration largely on the Khartoum government. He points out that three years ago, an international commission, agreed to by the al-Bashir administration, set the area's boundaries, giving much of the oil-rich territory to the SPLM. The southerners, though, continually declared their willingness to share oil profits with Khartoum. Nevertheless, al-Bashir's NCP refused to implement the commission's decisions, saying only that it had "exceeded the scope of its duties."

Gatkuoth says Khartoum has continued to reap the oil revenue for itself. There's also been no local governance in Abyei because the two parties have failed to agree on a structure to administer the region. So residents have been deprived of essential services and hardly any significant development had taken place in Abyei.

Gatkuoth says Khartoum's insistence that it attacked Abyei after its troops were "threatened" by SPLM fighters is "not true. It is actually just another justification for them to attack Abyei. There was no justification for us to be moving our troops there. The U.N. was there already."

The SPLM spokesman acknowledges that his party appointed a chairman for Abyei, Edward Lino, before the clashes but insists that this shouldn't have provided the Sudan government with an excuse to destroy the town. Gatkuoth says Lino's presence in Abyei did not result in the SPLM sending a lot of fighters into the area: "He (Lino) was having no forces; he was just having bodyguards to protect him ? between 15 and 20 people." 

Daniel Jok Deng, a Sudanese aid worker who operates in Abyei, says a militia from the local Misseriya Arab group helped the government forces attack the town. He says the al-Bashir administration is employing the Misseriya to drive out the local people of Abyei in the same way that it's using the janjaweed militia to attack the inhabitants of Darfur.

 "It is the same strategy. And the janjaweed, who are the Arab nomads who are fueling the proxy militias of the government in Darfur, are the same community as the Misseriya and the Bagara and the Rezegat in Kordofan, who have been used as militias in the Abyei area. So it's very much the same phenomenon and the same people and the same protagonists, so to speak."

A spokesman on Sudan at the U.S. State Department, Jason Small, expresses confidence that both the Khartoum government and the SPLM are moving to ensure that the destruction of Abyei doesn't result in a return to war.

"I've heard that both sides were very much shocked by the situation and how quickly it escalated, and how this really did threaten and show perhaps some areas of fragility of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement."

Representatives of the government of Sudan did not respond to numerous requests for interviews regarding the Abyei issue.