The president of Southern Sudan said Thursday he will not return the south to war with the Khartoum-based north over the disputed region of Abyei even as the north was reportedly moving thousands of Arab tribesmen into Abyei villages abandoned by terrified southerners.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled southward from Abyei after northern Sudanese troops invaded the region over the weekend. The south's minister of information, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, said the northern army is moving thousands of Misseriya tribesmen into villages that belonged to the Ngok Dinka, a southern tribe. One observer said ethnic cleansing was taking place.
The fighting that began last Thursday has threatened to unravel a 2005 peace deal and re-ignite a civil war that left more than 2 million people dead from 1983-2005.
But Southern President Salva Kiir said the south has "fought enough" and that now is the time for peace.
"We will not go back to war. It will not happen," Kiir pledged at a news conference in Juba, the future capital of the south. "We are committed to peace."
Kiir called for the north to withdraw its troops and said he would welcome international peacekeeping forces in the region.
He also accused the northern government of arming several warlords in the south to try to destabilize the southern government.
Southern Sudan breaks away from the north on July 9 to form the world's newest nation. Both regions claim Abyei, a fertile land near several large oil fields.
John Prendergast, co-founder of the advocacy group the Enough Project, said the international community must intervene to halt the north's actions.
"The ultimate strategy is to ethnically cleanse Abyei, similar to what the regime has done in parts of Darfur," Prendergast said. "The international community must respond with more than appeals for calm and mild reproaches. The time has come for serious consequences for the commission of war crimes, or they will continue."
The latest skirmish began last week after southern troops attacked northern and U.N. forces. Kiir said that attack was a misunderstanding between two soldiers from opposite sides and called the north's invasion an "overreaction." Southern soldiers are notoriously poorly disciplined.
Kiir said the south will eventually reclaim Abyei, though he did not elaborate.
A U.N. spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said Abyei has been badly damaged by looting. Buildings have also been set on fire there.
Satellite photos of the Abyei region show that the northern army is prepared to intensify military operations there and along the contested north-south border, where most of the south's oil lies, Prendergast said. He accused Khartoum of trying to intimidate the south to make deeper compromises at the negotiating table over border demarcation and the sharing of oil revenues.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir "is betting that the blunt instrument of force will succeed in securing his interests where diplomacy has failed," Prendergast said.