North Sudan's government called for Southern Sudanese troops stationed in northern border states to withdraw within days, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press Monday. But the south said it will not withdraw its troops because they are local men.
The standoff follows the north's occupation of the disputed border region of Abyei last week. Bombing and fighting in the area displaced nearly 80,000 people and sparked fears that northern and Southern Sudan could slide back into civil war.
A letter to Southern Sudan's chief of staff said that northern officials wanted the south to withdraw their forces from Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states by the beginning of June. Both states are considered northern territory although many of their inhabitants fought for the south during the country's more than two decade civil war and are ethnically linked to the rebels in the south
But the south has said it cannot pull those who fought for it out of their homeland, even if the current borders mean they live in the north. Borders between the two have not been fully worked out although the south is due to become independent in July.
"They are inside their territory, we don't have any right to pull them out," said Col. Philip Aguer, spokesman for the Sudan People's Liberation Army. He said thousands of soldiers in the southern army hail from the fertile and militarized Nuba Mountains, which lie inside the two border states. They were supposed to remain there until July 9 and then they could decide if they wanted to remain or come south, he said.
About 3,500 troops loyal to the southern government are in each state as part of joint units with the north, Aguer said. The units were established by the 2005 peace agreement that ended the civil war. The same peace deal stipulated that the south could hold a vote on secession this January. Southerners voted overwhelmingly for independence and Southern Sudan is due to become a new country on July 9.
An internal United Nations intelligence report seen by the AP on Monday predicted that the southern government was unlikely to try to withdraw forces from the two border states because it might jeopardize the "strategic relationship" of the southern government with communities who live in the north but fought for the south. Such communities could serve as a buffer if the north launched military action against the south.
"These are not southerners," Aguer said. "These are northern Sudanese who have been fighting for their rights and their justice."
"If the north wants to attack them that is up to them," he added.
Zach Vertin, Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group, said that the south's top priority was a smooth transition to independence and it was unlikely to take military action to jeopardize that.
The unique situation in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan "necessitates a more nuanced solution in both political and security terms" from the northern government than simply demanding the exodus of thousands of local residents who fought for the southern guerrilla army, he said.
Leaders from the north and south have been meeting over the past months to negotiate on a range of issues related to Sudan's split, including the dissolution of the joint north-south force and citizenship rights for those who now live on the other side of the border. Both Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states were supposed to have consultations to assess the provisions in the peace deal and any shortfalls in its implementation, but they have not yet been held.
After last week's seizure of Abyei, analysts fear that the call to remove soldiers whose loyalty is to the south from the two states could be a sign that Khartoum is positioning itself to influence the consultations and possibly seize more disputed land along the border.
The bulk of the south's oil is concentrated in the states that border the north. Those areas saw brutal conflict during the war and many were once the scene of fighting between the southern army and southern rebels.
On Sunday, Sudan's parliament said it will not give up Abyei.
"The government will not allow interference in the January 1956 border," the parliament deputy speaker said in a statement carried by Sudanese news agency SUNA on Sunday.
Ibrahim Ghandour, a senior member of al-Bashir's party, said southerners considering Abyei a southern region following independence on July 9 are mistaken.
"This is a violation of the CPA and the Abyei protocol which gave the people of Abyei the right to a referendum and choosing between staying north or join the south," he said, according to SUNA.
Associated Press Writer Sarah el-Deeb in Cairo, Egypt contributed to this report.