North, south Sudan to remove Abyei forces: U.N.

KHARTOUM Mon May 9, 2011 3:18pm EDT

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KHARTOUM (Reuters) - North and south Sudan have agreed to withdraw all unauthorized forces from the contested Abyei border region, the United Nations said, in an attempt to defuse tensions in the oil-producing flashpoint.

The south, where most follow Christian and traditional beliefs, overwhelmingly voted to declare independence from the mostly Muslim north in a referendum in January.

But both sides claim Abyei and have built up forces, beyond an agreed joint north-south unit, in the remote area. Analysts say Abyei is one of the likeliest places for conflict to erupt before the south secedes on July 9.

The pullout of all unauthorized forces would start on Tuesday and be completed within a week, the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) said in a statement late on Sunday after a meeting of northern and southern forces in Abyei.

"There was goodwill on both sides and we hope to follow up on this spirit, to see that it is actualized, because Abyei is very important in the peace process," UNMIS Force Commander Major General Moses Bisong Obi said in the statement.

Last week, at least 14 people were killed in clashes between northern and southern forces in Abyei, according to the United Nations. Both sides blamed each other for starting the violence.

Under earlier agreements, only special joint north-south police and army units are supposed to patrol Abyei.

But both sides have built up separate troops and heavy weapons around the underdeveloped region, according to satellite images and the United Nations.

"The danger of new conflict is real," said the International Crisis Group in a report.

"Failure to halt the downward trend toward violence in Abyei could unravel the tenuous peace that has been strong enough to get through the ... referendum ... It could also intensify proxy war in other parts of Sudan," the report added.

CLAIMS

The African Union said its representative, former Burundi President Pierre Buyoya, got commitments from southern President Salva Kiir and northern Vice President Ali Osman Taha not to make "unconditional claims" on Abyei in draft constitutions.

Based on these commitments the AU "understands that Abyei will remain unchanged until a political settlement is agreed," it said in a statement, adding that Buyoya had held separate meetings with both leaders.

Last month, Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said he would not recognize south Sudan as an independent state unless it gave up a claim on Abyei, made in the south's draft constitution.

Sudan's north and south have fought for all but a few years since 1955 over oil, ethnicity, religion and ideology. The conflict, which ended with a 2005 peace deal, killed an estimated 2 million people and destabilized much of east Africa.

Abyei residents were also supposed to have a referendum in January over whether to join the north or south. But disputes over who could vote derailed that ballot and talks over the status of the region have stalled.

Northern and southern leaders have also made little progress in talks over a range of issues including how they will divide up debts and assets, and how the south might pay the north to transport oil after the split.

(Additional reporting by Jeremy Clarke in Juba; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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