By Alex Dziadosz and Jeremy Clarke
KHARTOUM/JUBA (Reuters) - When Abdeljalil Abdelrahim talks about Abyei, a war-scarred region in central Sudan prized by northern nomads for its grazing land, he has no doubt it belongs to the north.
"Abyei has been part of the north historically," the 41-year-old laborer said as he unloaded jerricans of food oil in a dusty Khartoum suburb. "If there is a war over it, I'll be fighting alongside my government, alongside the north."
Some 1,200 kilometres (750 miles) south in Juba, 36-year-old Abel Garang, from the southern Dinka tribe like most of Abyei's permanent residents, is just as certain the region is southern. "Abyei belongs to the south. It's our land, it's our place."
South Sudan will split away to form a new nation on July 9, but north and south have yet to agree who owns Abyei, stirring fears a long-running quarrel over the region will sour the secession and could spark a broader conflict.
In a power play ahead of the split, Khartoum sent tanks and troops into Abyei on May 21, outraging the southern government, human rights groups and regional and global powers who called it a violation of the 2005 deal that ended Sudan's long civil war.
The move followed an attack on a convoy of northern troops and U.N. peacekeepers which the north blamed on the south and which the U.N. said was likely to have been carried out by southern police or soldiers.
As Khartoum moved in, tens of thousands of villagers fled south in a panicked exodus to escape looting and burning.
Last week the two sides agreed to withdraw troops from Abyei and bring in Ethiopian peacekeepers, but the area's symbolic and emotional potency could make it a sore point for years to come.
"This could be the start of another prolonged bout of internationally-backed mediation, or it could be the first shot in a long border war," Douglas Johnson, a Sudan expert and former member of the Abyei Boundaries Commission, said.
A return to war, which neither north or south Sudan can afford, would destabilize the region by sending refugees back into neighbors like Kenya and Ethiopia and creating a security vacuum in the heavily-armed south.
A volatile mix of politics, history and oil has fueled conflict over Abyei, a microcosm for the ethnic and religious divisions behind a civil war that claimed some 2 million lives.
The Dinka Ngok people, part of the south's main ethnic group, live and farm the land all year round. The northern Arab Misseriya nomads use it for part of the year to graze cattle.
A major sticking point has been a dispute over who should be allowed to vote in a referendum over whether the region would join the north or the south after the split.
Southerners, many of whom see holding the plebiscite as a major concession in itself, say Abyei's permanent residents should decide, meaning it would be mostly up to the Dinka.
"They (the Misseriya) are guests who came to graze. What kind of guests invade?" one Juba resident said.
Northern officials like Rabie Abdelati, a senior member of the north's ruling National Congress Party (NCP), dismiss this as discrimination. "As you know, a nomad is a citizen," he said.
The importance of both constituencies means neither side is likely to budge soon, analysts say. Many Ngok Dinka hold high-ranking posts in the south, and the Misseriya were powerful allies for the NCP during the civil war.
Abyei also contains one significant oilfield, Defra.
Although the region has just a sliver of Sudan's reserves, Khartoum stands to lose up to three-quarters of the country's current output of about 500,000 barrels per day when the south secedes, and so may try to hold on to as much as it can.
In the worst case, analysts and aid workers predict a replay of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, when two other regional countries took up arms over a border dispute after a similar split.
"The Abyei crisis could produce a much wider and deadlier war after July 9 if it isn't addressed before then," John Prendergast, a former U.S. State Department official who co-founded the anti-genocide Enough Project, said.
A PEACEFUL SOLUTION
If you strip away the politics and history, Abyei may not seem worth all the bloodshed. A flat area about the size of Connecticut dotted with huts made of mud and stick, it has been pummeled by war and has only basic infrastructure.
Many still see hope for a peaceful resolution.
When the north seized Abyei, the south's President Salva Kiir told its Dinka residents not to despair -- Abyei would remain their land "whatever it costs us," he said. But there seemed to be little appetite to return to armed conflict.
Analysts said this could be a political calculation aimed at securing northern recognition of the south's independence, but many also see a weakening enthusiasm for war over Abyei, especially among a younger generation less steeped in conflict.
In the north, too, where inflation and a depreciating currency are presenting fresh economic challenges, there may be less zeal to fight for the distant region than there once was.
When asked what Abyei meant to him, one 24-year-old tourism worker in Khartoum just shrugged. "Frankly, we don't need any problems from the south here in the north," he said as he sat with friends by a juice stand. "We need a peaceful solution."
(Writing by Alex Dziadosz; editing by Philippa Fletcher)