North and south Sudan to start Abyei talks

Northern and southern Sudanese representatives will meet on Saturday to try to defuse tensions over the...

Sudan

Northern and southern Sudanese representatives will meet on Saturday to try to defuse tensions over the disputed Abyei region, officials said, with just six weeks left before the south is set to secede.

Northern Sudanese armed forces seized the disputed Abyei region last week, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee and raising fears the north and south could return to full-blown conflict. The move drew sharp international criticism.

Abyei was a major battleground in Sudan's last civil war and has symbolic importance for both sides. The region is used all year by the south-linked Dinka Ngok people and for part of the year by northern Arab Misseriya nomads.

The status of the fertile area, which produces some oil, has remained one of the most contentious issues in the run up to the split scheduled for July 9.

South Sudan's Vice President Riek Machar will meet officials in the northern capital Khartoum, Mangar Amerdid, a spokesman for south Sudanese President Salva Kiir, said in Juba.

"His Excellency Riek Machar is travelling to Khartoum today for talks. He is seeing if there is any way to ease the tension between north and south," he said.

North Sudanese state and other media said Machar would meet north Sudan's Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha.

Envoys from north and south Sudan were also expected to meet in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on Saturday to try to end the crisis, an African Union official said.

'VOLATILE AND TENSE'

The U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) resumed land and air patrols in the Abyei area on Thursday, spokesman Kouider Zerrouk said. It had halted the patrols after fighting began.

Tensions rose in the region last week after an attack on a convoy of northern soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers that was blamed on southern Sudanese forces.

Khartoum moved tanks into Abyei's main town last Saturday, and has since defied calls from the United States, United Nations and south Sudan's president to withdraw, saying the land belongs to the north.

Entire villages were emptied after widespread fighting and looting forced tens of thousands of people to flee down muddy roads without possessions, international organisations say.

Seasonal rainfall coupled with fuel shortages have made it hard to reach areas near Abyei, the U.N. said in a statement, adding it had received reports of harassment and looting of relief supplies by southern forces.

UNMIS spokesman Kouider said looting and burning in Abyei appeared to have subsided by Friday, but sporadic gunshots could be heard. "The situation remains volatile and tense," he said.

Analysts fear a north Sudanese land grab could spark 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 at birth.

Southern Sudanese voted overwhelmingly to secede in a January referendum guaranteed by a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between the mainly-Muslim north and the south, where most follow Christian or traditional beliefs.

In Juba, the southern capital, about 100 people demonstrated on Saturday to pray for those killed in the violence in Abyei.

Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir said on Thursday there would be no war over the incursion and that it would not derail independence.