Civilians displaced in forests by last week clashes

Published on Monday 19th May 2008


Nairobi: Thousands of civilians who were displaced from Abyei town by clashes last week between the Sudanese army and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) are living rough in nearby forests.

"The whole civilian population in Abyei town and surrounding villages was pushed out of town in disarray by the heavy bombardments," SPLM spokesman Major General Peter Parnyang Daniel said.

"They are now wandering and suffering in the nearby forests without water, food and shelter," he told IRIN in Juba. He accused the Sudanese army of conducting a "full-scale indiscriminate bombardment of Abyei town with heavy artillery and mortars.

"Most of the town, especially the market, police station and JIU [Joint Integrated Unit, formed as part of the peace agreement] barracks got burnt not only from the bombardments, but also from the [Sudan armed forces] soldiers who were sent to burn what was left - mainly the civilian residential areas," he added.

Army spokesman Brig Osman Mohamed al Aghbash denied the claims, saying the SPLM forces had instead besieged the army's Brigade 31 in the town centre, and were responsible for the bombardments.

"These incidents were caused by the presence of the [SPLM] forces in the area north of Abyei ... thus violating the resolutions of the ceasefire mechanism," he said in a statement on 18 May.

The deployment of SPLM forces and police in Abyei town, despite the existence of civilian police, and the arrest of some representatives of the ruling National Congress Party were also to blame, he added.

Many thousands of those people have been repeatedly displaced and have just come back home this year to be forced to flee again at a time when they were planning to till their land for the next planting season

The UN estimates that 30,000-50,000 people were displaced in fighting that started on 13 May from Abyei, in the oil-rich region near the boundary between North and South Sudan.

"Many thousands of those people have been repeatedly displaced and have just come back home this year to be forced to flee again at a time when they were planning to till their land for the next planting season," Ameerah Haq, the deputy special representative of the UN Secretary-General to Sudan, said.

The UN has since sent an assessment team to survey the needs of the displaced people, especially regarding food, water, shelter and medical needs. It plans to send aid to those affected.

Other aid workers in Juba said relative calm had returned to Abyei since the clashes, but a blame game between the two sides had continued to stoke tensions in the volatile region.

Abyei, an oil-rich area near the boundary between north and south Sudan contested by the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), has been one of the main stumbling blocks to the implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement, which ended more than two decades of conflict in the country.

Despite a joint military committee meeting attended by the UN, the Sudanese army and the SPLM agreeing to ease tensions, the SPLM administrator in Abyei, Edward Lino, accused the Sudanese army of targeting civilians during the clashes.

Speaking to reporters in the southern capital of Juba on 18 May, Lino singled out the army's Brigade 31 as responsible for the unrest in Abyei, claiming that SPLM troops had withdrawn southwards.

The army spokesman refuted Lino's claims. Abyei area, he said, enjoyed a special status according to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and should be policed by a joint military force.

According to analysts, the Abyei question has become a stumbling block to the implementation of the CPA. Disagreements over the status of the region have left it in an administrative and political vacuum. In recent months, clashes between the armed forces in the region have left scores dead.

On 16 May, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sudan, warned: "This latest development in Abyei, whose complex problems represent one of the most difficult challenges facing the successful implementation of the [CPA], underscores the importance of fully implementing the Abyei protocol."

Impasse over the area -- whose oil wealth is bitterly contested by the two sides -- is one of the stumbling blocks delaying implementation of the peace deal and exacerbating tensions between north and south.

Analysts say that Abyei, often called the "Kashmir" of Sudan's north-south conflict and coveted by both sides, could be the flash point to reignite civil war if its status is not resolved amicably and quickly.

In 2011, Abyei will hold a referendum on whether to retain its special administrative status in the north or be incorporated into the south.

A second referendum on whether the south should break away as an independent state will also be held.