After mere months of independence could South Sudan be going to war?
Recent clashes in the Abyei region of Sudan have many worried that Sudan will plunge back into the violence that defined decades of civil war.
On Saturday, northern forces seized control of Abyei, a strategic town in the oil-producing border region. Army tanks under the control of the North moved into the town saying to was clearing out Southern soldier who had encroached on their territory and violated a pre-existing agreement. After weeks of standoff tension, Northern army tanks plowed through the main town sending Abyei into chaos.
Speaking on the North offensive into Abyei, South Sudan’s military spokesman Philip Ague:
“Our mission is to protect the borders … any step south of this [North-South] border will not be tolerated.”
U.N. spokeswoman Hua Jiang said thousands of residents have fled due to the looting and burning, but could not confirm a number of refugees. Aid group in the area estimate 15,000 to 20,000 people have fled to Agok, a nearby town, for safe haven. U.N. officials were in that city yesterday to assess the situation but had their meeting cut short when gunfire erupted nearby.
Though the Souther part of the country voted overwhelmingly for independence in January, Abyei remains disputed territory between the two. Both the North and the South believe Abyei must be allowed to determine its loyalty, but their disagreement on the terms of a potential referendum vote in the region have kept it from occurring.
Recently appointed by President Obama, US Special Envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman told The Christian Science Monitor that the North has risked debt relief worth billions of dollars by seizing Abyei and that it was “crucial for the North’s President Omar al-Bashir and South Sudan President Salva Kiir to meet to discuss the crisis.”
Many blame the diplomatic community for not requiring the disputed region to be including the peace deal struck in 2005. Of the 500,000 barrels of oil produced a day in Sudan, nearly 75% come from Abyei.
While oil is certainly a factor on the national political level, the development community is reminding policymakers of Abyei’s importance to the Sudanese people’s basic survival. The region is prized by many in the war-torm country for its access to water and food stockpiles as well. With its natural resources, it is unlikely either side will give up in the fight for control.