UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council asked the United Nations on Tuesday to investigate the actions of U.N. peacekeepers during recent deadly clashes in a disputed oil-rich region of southern Sudan.
The council statement comes after a senior U.S. diplomat accused U.N. peacekeepers in the region, known as UNMIS, of hiding in their barracks during the fighting instead of protecting Sudanese civilians in line with their mandate.
Last month's violence in Sudan's Abyei region, which straddles the border between northern and semi-autonomous southern Sudan, killed dozens and forced about 50,000 people from their homes, igniting fears that a new civil war could erupt between the north and south.
"The Security Council requests the (U.N.) Secretary General to examine the root causes of, and the role played by, UNMIS in connection with the violence ... in Abyei in May 2008, and consider what follow-up steps may be appropriate for UNMIS," the council said in a unanimously approved statement.
U.S. special envoy for Sudan Richard Williamson said last week that "Sudanese homes were burned to the ground and looting took place, despite the fact that UNMIS has a mission ... to intervene to protect innocent people."
U.N. special envoy for Sudan Ashraf Qazi rejected Williamson's comments, saying "UNMIS has neither the capacity nor the mandate to militarily intervene."
UNMIS is a 10,000-strong U.N. force, whose job it is to ensure that the north and south are complying with a 2005 peace agreement that ended two decades of civil war.
According to the UNMIS Web site (www.unmis.org), U.N. peacekeepers in Sudan are authorized to protect civilians under threat of physical violence "without prejudice to the responsibility of the Sudanese government."
The council statement made clear the 15-nation body does not believe UNMIS should take a passive approach to peacekeeping.
The statement said the council urged UNMIS "to robustly deploy, as appropriate, peacekeeping personnel in and around Abyei to help reduce tensions and prevent escalation of conflict in support of implementation of" the 2005 peace deal.
U.N. peacekeeping officials say they are already investigating what happened last month in Abyei. Diplomats said the UNMIS unit at Abyei was from Zambia.
The 2005 peace deal left open the future status of Abyei, but leaders of northern and southern Sudan have prepared a "road map" to defuse conflict over the region and have decided to turn their border dispute over to an international court in The Hague for a final settlement.
The council statement called on both the north and south to remove their troops from Abyei and allow free movement of UNMIS personnel in the area.