Peacekeepers, Sudan soldiers attacked in Abyei

Reuters News
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Posted: May 20, 2011 11:45 AM
Peacekeepers, Sudan soldiers attacked in Abyei

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan's northern armed forces accused the South's army on Friday of attacking a convoy of northern troops and U.N. peacekeepers in the disputed Abyei region, a flashpoint in the run-up to the South's secession.

A military spokesman for the North threatened to retaliate for the attack, raising the prospect of more violence in an oil-producing border region that has become the main bone of contention ahead of plans to create Africa's newest state.

The United Nations said unknown attackers had struck the convoy of troops from the North that is was escorting as part of a deal to withdraw forces from the two sides from the region. Two people were wounded in the attack, the world body said.

South Sudan is due to become an independent state in July after overwhelmingly voting to declare independence from the North in a referendum in January.

The convoy of northern Sudanese soldiers escorted by U.N. peacekeepers came under fire on the way to Goli, north of Abyei town, late on Thursday, a spokesman for the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) said.

In a statement carried by state news agency SUNA, the northern army said the attack had been carried out by southern troops using heavy weapons and causing "big losses."

Northern military spokesman Al-Sawarmi Khaled told Al Jazeera television the north's army considered the attack "a clear sign of aggression and a violation of the peace treaty" and reserved the right "to respond to this aggression at the appropriate time and place."

The mainly Muslim North and the South, where most people are Christian or practice traditional beliefs, fought for decades in a civil war that killed an estimated 2 million people.

The war was ended by a 2005 peace deal that led to the referendum on southern independence, but the two sides have continued to clash over Abyei.

Earlier this month, at least 14 people were killed in clashes between northern and southern forces in Abyei. Both sides blamed each other for starting the violence.

Under an agreement, only special joint North-South police and army units are supposed to patrol Abyei. But both sides have separate troops and heavy weapons there, according to satellite images and the United Nations.

The peacekeepers were escorting two companies of the Sudanese army as part of an agreement to withdraw all other forces from both sides, the UNMIS spokesman said.

Last month, Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said he would not recognize the South's independence unless it gave up a claim on Abyei, made in the south's draft constitution.

Abyei residents were also supposed to have a referendum in January over whether to join the north or south. Disputes over who could vote derailed that ballot and talks over the status of the region have stalled.

(Reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Peter Graff)