Leaders from north and south Sudan signed an agreement on Monday to demilitarize the disputed central region of Abyei and allow an Ethiopian peacekeeping force to move in, said a former South African president who is helping lead peace talks.
Thabo Mbeki said Monday's agreement provides for the full demilitarization of Abyei, a fertile land near major oil fields that both north and south claim as their own. Troops from northern Sudan moved into the region last month, action that sent tens of thousands of people who are aligned with the south fleeing.
"The Sudan Armed Forces will pull out and will be deployed outside Abyei," said Mbeki, who helped lead the talks in neighboring Ethiopia.
The agreement comes three weeks before the south is set to secede from the north and create the world's newest country. Heavy violence has broken out along the north-south border in the run-up to the south's independence declaration.
An Ethiopian peacekeeping force that is ready to deploy will move in to Abyei as soon as possible, Mbeki said. The U.N. Security Council will decide at a meeting in New York what the mandate and size of the Ethiopian force will be.
Shortly after the agreement was reached, Mbeki told the U.N. Security Council by video conference that both parties want the U.N. to move quickly to see the agreement implemented. Mbeki said urgent action would allow the displaced people of Abyei to return after military forces leave, allowing the humanitarian situation to be addressed.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations welcomed the agreement and told the council that the United States "will soon" circulate a draft resolution that would authorize creation of the force for Abyei.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, in Washington, called the agreement "a very important first step," adding "we urge the parties to move quickly now to implement it and translate it into immediate concrete improvements in the security and humanitarian situation on the ground."
The text of the agreement says the Ethiopian forces will deploy "as soon as authorized by the United Nations." One brigade _ typically around 4,000 troops _ is to be deployed.
"It will also bring to an end this threat of violence, and actual violence in the area, so we are really hoping that (the) Security Council will look at this agreement as early as possible and take all the necessary decisions so that the various provisions in the agreement can be implemented," Mbeki said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the agreement Monday and called on the parties to abide by its provisions, "to demilitarize the area and establish an administration and police service," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
The parties must also provide full cooperation to the United Nations and government of Ethiopia in deploying peacekeeping troops and police to the area," he said.
Nesirky said the secretary-general pledged the full support of the U.N. in facilitating the implementation of the agreement and called on both parties to cease hostilities in Southern Kordofan.
Tens of thousands of people fled Abyei after northern troops moved in last month. More recently, tens of thousands of people aligned with the south have also fled attacks by the northern military in the state of South Kordofan. Talks on the violence in that region are set to begin Tuesday, Mbeki said.
Rice, the American ambassador, said U.S. reports of ongoing fighting in South Kordofan were "horrifying both because of the scope of human rights abuses and because of the ethnic dimensions to the conflict."
She said Sudanese Armed Forces have shelled and bombed the areas around the capital, Kadugli, and the U.S. has received reports that forces aligned with the government "searched for southern forces and sympathizers, whom they arrested and allegedly executed." The U.S. also has received unconfirmed reports that the Sudanese military is "arming elements of the local population and placing mines in areas of Kadugli," she said.
"The government of Sudan can prevent this crisis from escalating further by immediately stopping its military efforts to disarm the Sudan People's Liberation Army in Southern Kordofan and by focusing on diplomatic efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict," Rice said.
North and south Sudan fought a civil war that lasted decades and killed some 2 million people. It ended with a 2005 peace deal that gave the south the right to hold a self-determination vote. The region voted overwhelmingly in January to secede, but the north and south have yet to work out details like demarcation of the border and sharing of oil wealth.
Pagan Amam, the leader of the southern delegation, said the south is happy with the agreement, particularly the part calling for the withdrawal of northern forces from Abyei.
"This will create an environment for negotiations and to finalize the final status of Abyei and resolve other outstanding issues," he said.
Amam said a line about Abyei being a land of different communities was removed from the agreement, because as the south sees it Abyei is the land of the Ngok Dinka, who are aligned with the south. The text of the agreement says ethnic Misseriya _ Arab cattle herders aligned with the north _ "shall enjoy rights of migration and access to pasture and water."
Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman called the signing of the temporary arrangements for the Abyei area "excellent news."
"The government of Sudan is sincere in its determination to resolve all pending issues," he said. "This announcement leads us to believe that the pending issues will be resolved."
He cited the "good news" of progress on economic issues including resource sharing, said both sides are "very close to an agreement on security," and told the council the Sudanese government "is determined to arrive at agreement on South Kordofan and all other pending issues."
Mbeki reported to the Security Council that north-south discussions have also made headway on issues like trade, currency, debt and oil. He said the sides would look at a separate proposal on economic issues on Tuesday.
He said one outstanding matter is a discussion over the size and composition of an international military force that would assist the two Sudan states. The force would ensure border security, including policing a demilitarized border zone that the sides have already agreed to.
U.N. special envoy for Sudan, Haile Menkerios, told the Security Council by video conference that in addition to the Ethiopian force in Abyei, the North and South have agreed in principle on the need for a third party to monitor their border, and are continuing discussions on the possibility of establishing a border monitoring operation.
He said the African Union's High Implementation Council has suggested that border monitoring be done by a U.N. peacekeeping mission _ and that if there is such a mission it also incorporate the Abyei force.
The north and south also agreed on a temporary solution for the administration of Abyei. The Abyei Council will elect a chairman nominated by the government of Sudan. A joint committee with two members from both sides and another member nominated by African Union chair Jean Ping will supervise the administration, the police force and the security situation.
"This should result in restoring peace and open the way for the two parties to discuss the final status of Abyei," Mbeki said. "That is not possible until you have stabilized the security situation."
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Desmond Butler in Washington contributed to this report.