The vice president of Southern Sudan on Tuesday urged the northern Sudanese military to withdraw its forces from a disputed border region that has seen a buildup of troops and weapons.
Vice President Riek Machar said leaders in the northern Sudanese capital of Khartoum are moving troops into the region just north of Abyei. Machar said all Southern Sudanese forces have pulled back from and are now stationed south of Abyei, a fertile and oil-producing territory that northern cattle herders use to graze their cattle.
The U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, has expressed concern about a military buildup in Abyei by forces from both Juba, Southern Sudan's capital, and Khartoum. A confrontation, he said, could lead to war.
Southern Sudan voted in January to secede from the north _ a vote promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended a more than 20-year civil war _ and is slated to become the world's newest country in July. Abyei had been promised its own independence referendum, but it did not take place and now the region's future is being negotiated by north and south.
Two populations warily coexist in Abyei: the Ngok Dinka farmers, who are loyal to the south and want independence from the north, and the Arab Misseriya cattle herders, who graze their herds in Abyei and fear losing access to the land if it secedes.
Machar said the south is committed to finding a political solution to the border conflict.
"We want to avoid war and continue discussions even if they are protracted," he said.
Many outstanding issues remain to be settled between. President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir have held several talks in Khartoum and Juba under the auspices of Thabo Mbeki, chairman of the African Union's high-level panel on Sudan.
The parties discussed economic issues in Ethiopia last weekend. Yohanis Musa Pouk, an aide to Machar, said talks will continue but no new meeting has been scheduled.
Machar said a security deal agreed on by the north and south last week calls for all parties to withdraw defense forces except local police and joint north-south units mandated by the terms of the 2005 peace deal.
A U.S. satellite monitoring group said earlier this month that its images show that the north has deployed helicopter gunships and tanks close to the Abyei region. The Satellite Sentinel Project reported last month that northern-aligned forces had razed three villages near Abyei.