Sudan's army says to withdraw from Abyei

KHARTOUM/JUBA Mon May 28, 2012 1:55pm EDT

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KHARTOUM/JUBA (Reuters) - Sudan will withdraw all its troops from the disputed border region of Abyei, its army spokesman said on Monday, removing a major obstacle to peace talks with its arch foe South Sudan.

But with talks due to resume in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, South Sudan accused its northern neighbor of bombing its territory and killing 10 people.

Sudan denied the charge.

Both African countries came close to all-out war when border fighting escalated last month to its worst level since South Sudan became independent after a referendum agreed under a 2005 deal that ended decades of civil war.

Sudan seized the border region of Abyei in May a year ago, prompting tens of thousands of civilians to flee, after an attack on a military convoy blamed by the United Nations on the southern army. Abyei was meant to have its own referendum but both sides failed to agree who would be allowed to participate.

"Sudan's army has decided to redeploy the troops to areas outside Abyei," army spokesman al-Sawarmi Khalid said in a brief statement read out to reporters. He gave no time frame.

Ethiopian peacekeepers were deployed in Abyei, prized for its fertile grazing land, after the security council initially authorized sending them last June. South Sudan withdrew its 700-strong police force from Abyei this month.

The U.N. Security Council demanded on May 17 that Sudan immediately and unconditionally withdraw its troops from Abyei, but Khartoum pledged only to do so after a joint military observer body was created for the area.

A spokesman for South Sudan's government expressed doubt over whether Khartoum would actually withdraw from Abyei.

"Will they really do it? because they have been saying that since last year, May 2011, when we withdrew our forces, the SPLA. And they remained there," Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told reporters in Juba.

He also accused Sudan of flying war planes over the southern capital of Juba and bombing its territory with artillery as well as MiG and Antonov planes, killing 10 people.

"We have seen 10 people killed as a result of bombardment in Warguet and Majak Woi and Kirrkou in Northern Bahr el Ghazal (state)," he said.

"Khartoum always speaks different tongues on the same issue ... while we are trying to talk peace in Addis, the Sudan government and its armed forces are attacking South Sudan."

Sudan's army denied the bombings. "We didn't violate the international border or launch any attack," Sawarmi said.

Sudan routinely denies bombing the South's territory and the remoteness of the border region makes air strikes difficult to verify, although Reuters journalists have witnessed several bombing raids in the South since the country split in two.

Since partition, the two countries have failed to demarcate five areas along their shared border or sign agreements on citizenship, oil transit fees and the division of debt.

Diplomats see no quick progress at the talks as positions seem wide apart.

Nevertheless, South Sudan's chief negotiator Pagan Amum said he was still hopeful for a new round of talks. "We are more optimistic than any other time before," he said at Juba airport before leaving for the Ethiopian capital.

Sudan has said it wants to make security a priority and accuses Juba of supporting rebels in Sudan's borderlands. South Sudan denies the claims.

Both sides also need to agree on how much landlocked South Sudan should pay to export oil through Sudan's Red Sea port of Port Sudan.

In January, South Sudan shut down its entire output of 350,000 barrels a day to stop Khartoum taking some oil for what Sudan calls unpaid export fees. Oil is the lifeblood of both economies.

(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum and Hereward Holland in Juba; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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