(Reuters) - Sudan’s northern army seized control of the disputed, oil-producing Abyei region, officials said on Sunday, forcing thousands to flee and bringing the country’s north and south to the brink of full conflict. [
Here are some facts about the disputed region.
— Abyei sits on Sudan’s ill-defined north-south border and is claimed by both halves of the country. In many ways it is a microcosm of all the conflicts that have split Sudan for decades — an explosive mix of ethnic tension, ambiguous boundaries, oil and age-old suspicion and resentment.
— Northerners and southerners fought hard over it during decades of civil war and have continued to clash there even after the 2005 peace deal that ended the war and set up the referendum.
— Abyei contains rich pastureland, water and, after a recent re-drawing of its boundary, one significant oilfield — Defra, part of a block run by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), a consortium led by China’s CNPC.
— It also has emotional, symbolic and strategic significance. A number of leading figures from the south’s dominant party the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) hail from the area. Many southerners see the fight for Abyei as an emblem of their long struggle against perceived oppression.
— For several months a year, Abyei is also used by Arab Misseriya nomads — a well-armed group that provided proxy militias for Khartoum during the north-south war.
— The Misseriya claim centuries-old rights to use the land for their livestock and Khartoum will have to back them to the hilt if it wants to keep them as allies. Abyei’s Dinka Ngok tribe, with its ethnic links to the south, also claims its own historical ownership rights.
— Under the 2005 peace deal, Abyei had a special administrative status, governed by an administration made up of officials from the SPLM and President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s northern National Congress Party (NCP). Saturday, state media reported Bashir had removed the two heads of the Abyei administration and dissolved the administrative council, without giving further explanation.
— Abyei was also supposed to be watched over by Joint Integrated Units made up of northern and southern troops and police. In reality those units remain far from integrated and soldiers from both sides have been caught up in the fighting.
— Abyei proved so intractable that it was left unresolved in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the north- south civil war.
— The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague came closest to solving the first in 2009 by re-drawing Abyei’s boundaries, ceding several other key oilfields to the north. The SPLM and the NCP accepted the ruling but the Misseriya rejected it saying it still put too much of their pastureland inside Abyei. They have resisted official efforts to demarcate the new border.
— The Dinka Ngok and Misseriya also remain at loggerheads over who gets to vote. The Dinka have said only that a handful of settled Misseriya tradespeople count as residents. The Misseriya were demanding equal voting rights to the Dinka.
— South Sudan voted to become independent in the January 2011 referendum agreed to under the 2005 peace deal but tensions have built up in the oil-producing Abyei region where both sides have built up forces. However President Omar Hassan al-Bashir had said last month that Abyei would remain part of the north after the south secedes in July.
— Last week North and south Sudan’s armies accused each other of launching attacks in the contested region, marking an escalation of tensions in the countdown to the south’s independence in July.
— Khartoum sent tanks into Abyei town Saturday, the United Nations said and the next day seized control. North Sudan said it had sent in the troops to clear out southern soldiers that it said had entered the area, breaking the terms of earlier agreements.
Reporting by Andrew Heavens; Additional writing by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit