New clashes in Sudan's Abyei region

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 28, 2011 

NAIROBI, Kenya — Fighting between southern Sudan security forces and members of an Arab tribe from the north claimed at least 10 lives Sunday and Monday in the latest threat to Sudan's peaceful partition this summer.

The battle took place in the hotly contested Abyei region, which both southern and northern Sudan claim, and was the second major confrontation to wrack the region. Similar fighting in January killed at least 41.

Abyei straddles the border between Sudan's Arab-ruled Muslim north and the mostly non-Muslim African south, which voted by 99 percent in January to form a separate country in July. Undecided, however, is on which side Abyei will fall.

The latest fighting began on Sunday, when a local Arab militia attacked a southern police post outside the village of Todach, killing seven southern policemen and three militiamen, according to casualty counts given by both sides.

The police were reinforced overnight and the battle intensified on Monday, said Deng Arop Kuol, the top civil official in the area. Casualty counts for the second day of fighting were not known.

The new round of skirmishes could re-focus international attention on the most dangerous piece of Sudan's shaky transitional period as it begins to split after 50 years of on again-off again war. The conflict ended in a 2005 peace deal establishing southern self-rule for a six-year period leading up to the independence referendum.

The conflict over control of Abyei has sparked bloody battles throughout Sudan's history. Situated where the desert of the north turns into the marshes of the south, the 4,000-square-mile area was transferred to Sudan's northern administration under British colonial rule, even though it is the permanent homeland of the Ngok Dinka, a southern tribe.

When civil war broke out along ethnic lines soon after independence, Ngok Dinka fought with their southern kin against the northern government in Khartoum. In the 2005 accord, Abyei was promised its own special referendum on which side to join. This special poll was supposed to happen simultaneously with the larger southern independence referendum last month, but the Abyei vote was never held.

A group of nomadic cattle-herding Arabs, the Misseriya, who rely on a river at the southern edge of Abyei for grazing during the driest months of the year, refused to allow a referendum unless they were given equal voting rights alongside full-time residents like the Ngok Dinka.

"This is Misseriya land," said Sadig Babo Nimir, a Western-educated member of the tribe's ruling family, by phone from Khartoum. "The Ngok Dinka are just guests in this place."

Negotiated mechanisms to maintain the peace have had little effect on the conflict. Neither a joint military force of northern and southern units nor a local base of United Nations peacekeeping soldiers intervened to stop the past two days of violence.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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As Sudan makes split official, popular anger sweeps north

Voting ends in Sudan as country readies for split

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