Southern army spokesman Colonel Philip Aguer, left, and information minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin, right, at a press conference in Juba, Southern Sudan Sunday. (Photo: AP Photo/ Maggie Fick)
JUBA, Sudan (AP) — Southern Sudan's military on Monday said the northern army is moving to carry out a "full-scale war" and that the south will respond with force if its territory is breached. Officials in the north indicated the two sides could be brought back from the brink.
Violence flared late last week in the flashpoint region of Abyei, a no man's land between north and south Sudan that is threatening to send the two sides back to war. Southern Sudan voted in January to secede from the south, and the region becomes an independent country on July 9. But violence in Abyei is overshadowing the march toward independence.
Civilians fleeing violence in Abyei are moving even farther south — from the town of Agok toward Turalei — because of fears of more attacks, Gustavo Fernandez, an official with medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, said Monday. Children fleeing the conflict are walking long distances by themselves and risking dehydration during the journey, he said.
Tanks from northern Sudan rolled into the town of Abyei Saturday night, scattering southern troops that were there as part of a joint security unit. The U.N. compound was also hit with mortar fire, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Security Council called for an immediate end to military action.
The seizure of Abyei followed an attack on a convoy of northern soldiers by southern forces on Thursday and two days of aerial bombardment of the area by the north. Both north and south claim Abyei, a fertile region near several large oil fields, and its disputed status has long been recognized as a potential trigger for violence.
Russia's ambassador to the U.N. told a news conference late Sunday that a Sudanese official had hinted that the government is ready to pull back if guarantees are made that the south won't attack its troops again.
The escalation in violence comes as Southern Sudan, which is predominantly ethnic African, is due to become the world's newest country on July 9. The south voted overwhelmingly to secede from the Arab-dominated north in a January referendum promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of north-south war.
Southern army spokesman Col. Philip Aguer told a news conference that the south would respond with force if northern troops continue moving south. Aguer said the south would support rebels in Sudan's western region of Darfur and northern militias that support the south in response to the north's actions. He accused the north of using militias to block the south from oil fields.
The northern military "is not only just attacking Abyei, but it's moving for a full-scale war," Aguer said. The south "will not just wait and allow the SAF (Sudanese Armed Forces) to invade Southern Sudan. We have our limits where we are ready to protect our territory."
Under the peace deal, Abyei was also due to have a referendum to decide whether it would remain part of the north or south, but it was canceled amid disagreements over who was eligible to vote.
Now Abyei town is mostly empty, said Fernandez. MSF staff all evacuated to Agok, to the south, but now citizens and humanitarian aid groups are moving even farther south to Turalei, he said. Tensions among the fleeing populations were extremely high because of fears that violence would arrive in Agok, he said.
Princeton Lyman, President Barack Obama's Special Envoy to Sudan, told The Associated Press on Sunday that it is imperative that Sudan President Omar al-Bashir and southern leader President Salva Kiir talk to each other in order to resolve the crisis.
"They carry the responsibility for the whole country and they need to come together and figure out how they work (together) again," Lyman said.
Lyman said that the cooperation between the north and south leaders enabled the south's January independence vote to take place peacefully and credibly.
The U.N. Security Council, which is visiting Sudan, released a statement Sunday blaming both sides for the violence. It said the south had attacked the convoy of northern soldiers and the north had escalated the confrontation by occupying Abyei.
The council demanded "the immediate withdrawal of all military elements from Abyei" and called on both sides to restore calm, uphold the 2005 peace agreement, "and recommit to a negotiated political settlement on the future status of the Abyei area."
The south is mainly animist and Christian and its people are linguistically and ethnically linked to sub-Saharan Africa. The north is overwhelmingly Muslim and many members of the government consider themselves Arabs. Most of Sudan's oil is in the south but the pipeline needed to export it runs through northern territory to a northern-held port.
Associated Press writer Mohamed Osman in Khartoum, Sudan contributed to this report.