By Ulf Laessing
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan's northern army has taken control of the disputed Abyei region and is clearing it of armed groups from the South, a minister from the northern government said on Sunday.
Control of oil-rich and fertile Abyei has been the main point of dispute between northern and southern Sudan ahead of plans for the South to become a separate state on July 9 following a January referendum on independence.
Analysts say the region is one of the likeliest places for conflict to erupt over the secession.
"The Sudanese armed forces control Abyei and are cleansing it of illegal forces," Amin Hassan Omar, a minister of state for presidential affairs, told reporters in Khartoum.
The United Nations had said earlier that the northern army deployed 15 tanks alone in one area of the main town, also called Abyei. Gunshots could be heard until fighting appeared to subside for the night, spokeswoman Hua Jiang said.
The southern army acknowledged on Saturday that northern forces controlled the town of Abyei.
Southerners voted in January to become independent under terms of a 2005 peace deal that ended a north-south civil war. But violence has escalated in recent days in Abyei.
Residents of the Abyei region were meant to have a referendum in January over whether to join the North or the South. Disputes over who could vote derailed that ballot and talks over the status of the region have stalled.
North and South have yet to agree how to share oil revenues and other assets prior to the breakup.
The north supports the Arab Misseriya tribe that grazes its cattle in Abyei, and the south backs the Dinka Ngok tribe that lives there year round.
(Reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Peter Graff)