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Head of Sudan's Abyei rejects US compromise call

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - The chief administrator of Sudan’s Abyei region on Monday rejected U.S. calls for compromise in a row over the area’s future, a dispute that remains one of the main hurdles in the country’s north-south peace process.

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) greets semi-autonomous South Sudan's President Salva Kiir (L) and Sudan's Vice President Ali Osman Taha (R), before a high level meeting on Sudan, at United Nations headquarters, in New York, September 24, 2010. REUTERS/Chip East

Residents of oil-producing Abyei were promised a referendum on whether to join northern or southern Sudan as part of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war.

With just two and a half months to go before the scheduled start of the plebiscite, both sides remain at loggerheads over who should be allowed to vote and have not even managed to agree on the members of a commission to organise the poll.

The fate of Abyei, a battleground in the civil war and the site of oilfields and rich pasture, remains an emotive issue. Northern and southern troops have already clashed there since the peace deal.

The vote is scheduled to take place on the same day as a separate referendum on whether south Sudan should declare independence, a vote which is also mired in delays and north- south arguments. Northern officials have said the Abyei dispute will have to be resolved before the southern vote can go ahead.

U.S. Senator John Kerry on Sunday urged northern and southern leaders to reach a compromise on Abyei, telling journalists during a visit to Khartoum “a few hundred square miles cannot be allowed to stand in the way of progress when the fate of millions of people is at stake”.

On Friday, the U.S. envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, also urged the parties to compromises on a range of disputes including Abyei at a summit planned in Addis Ababa next week.

“I reject this compromise and everyone in Abyei rejects it,” administrator Deng Arop Kuol, a member of the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), told Reuters.

Kuol said the compromise the Americans had in mind was both sides agreeing to a division of Abyei between north and south, without a referendum. Participants in earlier failed Abyei talks told Reuters this option was on the table.

“The NCP (the north’s ruling National Congress Party) is out again to divide the area of Abyei -- they want to take the northern part which has oil and the river and good land. If you take that, then you are telling people here to pack up and go.”

He said Abyei residents had already lost enough territory in a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that ceded other oil fields and territory to the north last year.

The Abyei dispute is compounded by local tensions. The central territory is used by members of the Dinka Ngok tribe, associated with the south, and Arab Misseriya nomads who regularly drive their livestock through its rich pasture.

Washington has stepped up its engagement with Sudan in the countdown to the votes.

U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this month said Sudan was one of his top priorities, adding he wanted to prevent war and avert the risk of conflict opening up a new space for terrorist activity in the region.

Obama has offered Sudan incentives including trade, investment, debt relief and full diplomatic normalization if it allows the referendums to take place peacefully and resolves issues over the separate Darfur conflict.