JUBA, Southern Sudan — After weeks of cautiously optimistic statements about progress toward dividing Sudan into two countries, the United States on Wednesday issued a sharply worded rebuke warning that Sudan's northern government faced "greater, more painful isolation" if it didn't take steps to stop raids that have killed scores in the disputed Abyei border region.
"This dangerous standoff is unacceptable," the statement read.
The stern words came as the U.S. is determining whether to remove the northern Sudan government in Khartoum from its list of terrorist nations after the country's formal acceptance last month of the results of a referendum that will lead to Southern Sudan's independence in July.
The vote in January formed the cornerstone of a 2005 peace deal that ended a decades-long civil war that killed 2 million people.
Abyei is contested between the Ngok Dinka tribe of African southerners, who live there year-round, and Misseriya Arab northerners, who graze their cattle there during the dry season. A planned vote to determine whether the region remains with the Arab north or becomes part of the African south hasn't been held.
More than 100 people died last week when northern Arab fighters attacked Ngok Dinka villages in the Abyei area, forcing tens of thousands to flee southward. Satellite images from the Satellite Sentinel Project, co-founded by Sudan activist and actor George Clooney, showed entire villages razed to the ground, including one settlement in which 300 huts appeared to have been burned after an attack Saturday.
The U.S. statement accused both sides of deploying forces within the Abyei region in violation of the peace agreement, but the risk for northern Sudan is greater.
The government in Khartoum is under heavy U.S. sanctions and its president, Omar al Bashir, has been indicted on genocide charges at the International Criminal Court in connection with a separate conflict in Darfur.
In November, the Obama administration said it would consider removing Sudan from its list of terrorist nations in return for Bashir's respecting the referendum process as well as working toward a political solution to some of the thornier issues the south's independence raises. Those issues include Abyei as well as how to apportion oil revenues and the country's debt.
Last month, the U.S. announced that it had begun the review, though full sanctions won't be lifted until the conflict in Darfur is resolved.
U.N. officials have become increasingly pessimistic about the chances of resolving the Abyei standoff peacefully.
"Both sides are hardening their positions," said one, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters.
U.N. mediation has done little to resolve the conflict. Last Friday, senior officials from both sides attended a U.N.-organized meeting to discuss the situation. Angry Ngok Dinka stormed the compound where it was being held. The next day, a northern attack razed another village.
(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
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.