Clashes escalate in Sudan's Abyei as south votes
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Armed Arab nomads clashed with tribespeople in Sudan's disputed Abyei region for the third day on Sunday leaving an unknown number dead, officials said, hours after the start of a southern independence vote.
Analysts have said central Abyei is the most likely place that could see a resurgence of violence more than five years after a peace deal ended decades of north-south civil war and allowed the south a referendum on secession.
Abyei chief administrator Deng Arop Kuol -- a southerner -- told Reuters that Arab Misseriya fighters attacked Maker village at around midday (0900 GMT) on Sunday. Earlier attacks had been on the nearby village of Miokol, leaving one dead on Friday and an unknown number of casualties on Saturday, he said.
"Engagement from today and yesterday was heavy -- both sides incurred losses ... It was the Misseriya but there is strong evidence that some elements from SAF (the northern Sudan Armed Forces) have been identified," he said.
A U.N. official who declined to be named confirmed attacks had taken place on all three days.
Senior Misseriya official Mohamed Omer al-Ansary said his men had been involved in clashes on Sunday and Saturday but insisted they were attacked first by southern soldiers.
"There was an ambush (on Sunday). Two people from the Misseriya were killed," he said, adding southerners had been trying to stop the nomads from feeding their livestock.
A spokesman for the north's army confirmed clashes had taken place between Misseriya and Dinka tribesmen but denied any involvement.
"The Misseriya fought alone," he said. He accused the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) of arming Abyei's Dinka Ngok tribe.
Both north and south Sudan claim Abyei, a central fertile territory on their shared border used by both the Dinka Ngok, associated with the south, and Arab Misseriya nomads, associated with the north.
Its status was left undecided in a 2005 peace deal that ended the civil war and set up a referendum on whether south Sudan should secede -- a vote that started on Sunday.
Abyei was also promised its own referendum on whether it should join the north or the south on January 9. But preparations for that vote were left in limbo after Dinka and Misseriya leaders failed to agree on who was eligible to vote and where Abyei's borders lay.
Northern and southern leaders have said they are now trying to negotiate a settlement but there has been no sign of compromise from either side.
Kuol, a Dinka, said the Misseriya had heard false reports the Dinka were planning to hold their own referendum on Sunday and were trying to intimidate voters.
He said the governor of the surrounding Southern Kordofan state Ahmed Haroun -- a northerner -- had visited Abyei on Sunday and had promised to set up a committee to handle Misseriya-Dinka disputes in the future.
"We have resolved the situation for now but we will see if they are serious," said Kuol.
The speaker of the Abyei administration Charles Abyei told Reuters he had received unconfirmed reports that nine people died in Saturday's clashes and at least five on Sunday.
(Reporting by Andrew Heavens and Klaled Abdel Aziz; Editing by Jon Hemming)
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