JUBA, Sudan — Fighting in Sudan's disputed area of Abyei quieted Monday after more than 30 people died in clashes over the weekend as southern Sudan began polling in a landmark referendum on independence.
Following three days of clashes, a northern militia and southern security forces in Abyei confronted each other only once Monday but didn't fight, according to officials.
The clashes came as southern Sudanese turned out in droves in a referendum that began Sunday and is set to continue the rest of the week. The oil-rich, war-scarred region is expected to vote overwhelmingly to separate from the rest of Sudan, splitting Africa's largest country.
The referendum is seen by southerners as the end to a long and painful journey — for 50 years, southerners struggled against Sudan's Arab central government in Khartoum, christened during colonial rule as the nation's power center. Decades of civil war and famine followed, killing 2 million and leaving southern Sudan as one of the least developed inhabited places on earth.
The mood at the polling centers is celebratory and at times sober, as memories of the painful past fuse with hopes of a better future.
"I'm standing here for independence," said Sharelady Amach, a young southern Sudanese who recalls her lost childhood spent hiding in the bush rummaging for food and sleeping under trees. "Now we will be able to develop our country and build roads, schools and hospitals."
The vote is being monitored by a wide array of international and regional groups.
Even if a vote for secession is quickly recognized, the division won't be clean.
Abyei is the most contentious spot along the lengthy, disputed border with the north that's destined to form the boundary between the two new states.
Long administratively part of the north, its permanent residents, the Ngok Dinka, consider themselves southerners. Northern nomadic cattle herders who use the land for seasonal grazing, the Misseriya, also claim the land.
According to the 2005 peace accord ending the civil war, Abyei is supposed to be voting in its own referendum right now on whether to join the north or south, but it isn't happening due to a dispute of whether the Misseriya are eligible to vote.
According to a United Nations official, who asked not to be named because he's not authorized to speak on the matter, a group of Misseriya and southern security forces skirmished on Friday in Abyei, although it isn't clear who fired the first shot. One southern soldier was killed.
Heavy fighting then broke out on Saturday and spilled into Sunday, as well-armed Misseriya attacked southern security posts.
Both sides tell a different version of the events.
"Southern forces started shooting at some of our cattle, and so we fired back," said Sadig Babo Nimir, a Misseriya leader in Khartoum, of the Friday encounter. He then said that on Saturday, the Misseriya positions received heavy missile bombardment from the southern side, resulting in the attacks on southern positions.
The Misseriya lost 13 people in the fighting, he said.
Southern officials said they're fighting a northern-backed militia group.
"They are heavily armed. They have machine guns and artilleries. That is how we know these are not normal Misseriya," said Philip Aguer, a spokesman for southern Sudan's military.
As many as 23 people from their side died during the fighting, southern officials said.
A high-level security meeting involving both sides' community leaders seemed Monday to have "calmed" the Misseriya, the U.N. official said.
Leaders from both sides are due to meet on Wednesday to negotiate a migration route for the Misseriya herders, who normally head south into Abyei at this time of year for pasture.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based human rights foundation.)
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