Angry Southern Sudanese destroy U.N. vehicles over peace talks

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 4, 2011 

JUBA, Sudan — Southern Sudanese stormed a U.N. compound in the disputed Abyei region Friday, destroying 12 U.N. vehicles and setting fire to the compound's fence in the latest violence over the upcoming division of Sudan into two nations.

The attack on the compound in Abyei town took place as U.N. officials were meeting with leaders of north and south Sudan in an effort to stop a wave of violence that's left more than 100 people dead and forced tens of thousands to flee for safety.

Abyei has proved perhaps the most difficult issue to solve in Sudan's long north-south conflict, which has killed 2 million people over some 50 years. After a January referendum on independence, Southern Sudan is set to become a new nation July 9, but both sides still claim Abyei.

A tribe of Arab cattle herders allied with the north, the Misseriya, grazes its herds in Abyei during the dry season and claim it's Misseriya land. The African Ngok Dinka tribe, which lives year-round in the region's villages, disputes that.

The 2005 peace accord defined Abyei as the land of the Ngok Dinka, but it didn't resolve whether the area belonged to north or south Sudan. A referendum that was supposed to decide the issue hasn't been held because of a dispute about who should be allowed to vote.

On Sunday and Monday, northern forces launched an offensive against Abyei, killing about 70, according to the spokesman for the formerly rebel southern army, the Sudan People's Liberation Army. On Wednesday, northern attackers wiped out the police contingent outside the village of Maker Abyior. A foreign official who witnessed the mass burial of southern casualties that evening counted 33 bodies. Reports said that tens of thousands had fled south fearing more attacks.

Whether the attackers were tribesmen acting on their own or northern military troops was unclear. Southern minister of information Barnaba Marial Benjamin accused the northern army of providing two helicopters to ferry wounded attackers from Maker Abyior, a claim the northern army's spokesman denied. According to an internal U.N. report, the north's paramilitary Popular Defense Forces are suspected of participating in the attacks.

A satellite image — taken Thursday and released Friday by the Satellite Sentinel Project, funded largely by actor and Sudan activist George Clooney — appeared to show most of Maker Abyior burned to the ground.

Friday's meeting at the U.N. compound, mediated by the chief of the U.N. in Sudan, was intended to find ways to ease the tensions.

But the presence of Salah Gosh, a former Sudanese intelligence chief, who led the north's delegation, and Ahmed Haroun, the local governor, whom the International Criminal Court has indicted on war crimes charges for his role in the separate Darfur conflict, angered local Ngok Dinka youth.

After hours of chanting against the U.N. peacekeepers, who haven't intervened to stop the violence, about 400 young Ngok Dinka stormed the compound and destroyed the vehicles. They later began throwing stones and attempting to set the perimeter wall afire, according to eyewitnesses.

Police from Abyei, furing into the air to disperse the crowd, inadvertently shot and wounded a boy. Gosh and Haroun were evacuated by helicopter. The mob eventually left the compound after pleas from Deng Alor, an Ngok Dinka Cabinet minister in the southern government who'd headed the southern delegation to the talks.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based human rights foundation.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Wave of violence raises worries about Southern Sudan

Military's cease-fire with rebel breaks down in Southern Sudan

As Sudan makes split official, popular anger sweeps north

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