Sudan's army said Friday that rival southern forces attacked its troops and U.N. peacekeepers as they were pulling out of the contested region of Abyei along the north-south border in a United Nations convoy. The southern military later accused the north of carrying out bombing runs in the region.
The United Nations strongly condemned the incident, calling it "a criminal attack against the U.N." The U.N. mission in Sudan said the attack occurred Thursday evening in Dokura, an area controlled by the southern Sudanese police six miles (10 kilometers) north of Abyei town.
The U.N. convoy was transporting 200 northern army troops when the attack occurred, the U.N. said in a statement.
The southern forces denied that they attacked first and said the fighting was a provocation by the north.
Abyei has long been a hotspot, with both the north and south staking claim to the fertile area near several oil fields. Fears are rising that a new conflict could ignite there as Southern Sudan prepares to become the world's newest country in July.
The north and south fought for more than two decades in a war that claimed around 2 million lives before it ended in 2005. In January, people in Southern Sudan voted in a referendum to secede from the north, a decision that will split Africa's largest country in two.
Earlier this month, the northern and southern governments agreed to deploy a joint north-south force in Abyei after withdrawing their separate units, which have stoked tensions in the region.
Sudan's army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled said northern troops were ambushed by the southern army Thursday and suffered "huge losses." He said his side reserves the right to retaliate.
A spokesman for the south's Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army, or SPLA, denied that, saying the northern forces provoked the fighting in at attempt to seize the disputed area.
"The SPLA has been respecting the cease-fire," said Col. Philip Aguer.
Aguer later said that northern forces were carrying out bombing runs in the Tajalei area of Abyei on Friday. He said he did not have any information on any potential casualties.
A doctor at the main hospital in the town of Abyei told The Associated Press by phone that he heard the sound of Antonovs flying from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and that he could see the planes flying "far away." The hospital hadn't received any patients who had been wounded in any aerial bombardments. The doctor spoke only on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals.
Associated Press writer Mohamed Osman in Khartoum, Sudan contributed to this report.