South Sudan says 80,000 flee after north takes Abyei

About 80,000 people have fled since the north Sudanese army seized the disputed Abyei region almost a week...

Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir. Picture: AFP

About 80,000 people have fled since the north Sudanese army seized the disputed Abyei region almost a week ago, a southern official said Friday, doubling previous refugee estimates.

North Sudanese armed forces seized control of the Abyei region Saturday by moving tanks into the main town, drawing international condemnation seven weeks before south Sudan secedes to form a new nation.

"The situation is going from worse to even worse," said Dominic Deng, commissioner of the southern Twic county in south Sudan bordering Abyei, where most refugees arrived.

Deng was speaking in Turalei in Twic county, which is about 130km from Abyei town, the region's main settlement.

"They are sleeping under the trees. They need food and water ... some people are dying," he told reporters, while families were sitting under trees trying to escape the baking heat.

The United Nations had previously put the number of refugees at up to 40,000.

The oil-producing Abyei region was a battleground in the north-south civil war that ended in 2005. The fertile region is used all year round by the Dinka Ngok people, who have strong ethnic links to the south, and for part of the year by northern Misseriya nomads.

Southerners voted overwhelmingly for secession in a referendum in January, a vote that was promised in the 2005 peace deal that ended the civil war.

Analysts fear a north Sudanese land grab could bring a return to full-blown conflict, a development that would have a devastating impact on the region by sending refugees back across borders and creating a failed state in the south.

Khartoum has defied calls from the United States, United Nations and south Sudan's President Salva Kiir to withdraw, saying the land belongs to the north.

A Washington-based monitoring organisation, Satellite Sentinal Project, said images and analysis indicated that the northern army and irregular forces earlier this week loaded vehicles with items apparently taken from homes.

"The irregular payloads apparently present on the vehicles heading away from Abyei town are consistent with the photographs and reports of people from northern Sudan looting items left behind by tens of thousands of civilians who have fled the town," it said.

Kiir said Thursday the incursion into the disputed region would not derail the south's independence.