ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - North and south Sudan have agreed in principle to demilitarize the Abyei region and to deploy Ethiopian peacekeeping troops in the area, an African Union official said Monday.
South Sudan is scheduled to become an independent country on July 9, but the status of Abyei — a fertile, oil-producing area claimed by both sides — and other unresolved questions have complicated the secession.
Khartoum seized Abyei with tanks and troops on May 21, causing tens of thousands of people to flee and drawing an international outcry. The United States, United Nations and southern officials called on the north to withdraw.
The announcement came after the north’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and the south’s President Salva Kiir met in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to discuss the status of Abyei and other issues in the build-up to the split.
“In principle, the parties have agreed to the demilitarization of the area and the deployment of Ethiopian forces,” Barney Afako, spokesman for the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel on Sudan, told reporters.
“The question of the administration of Abyei is still on the agenda,” Afako added.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki has been helping guide talks between the two sides.
South Sudan voted to break off into a new country in a January referendum promised by a 2005 peace treaty that ended decades of civil war between the two sides.
Abyei was a major battleground during that conflict. It is used all year by south-linked Dinka Ngok people and for part of the year by northern Misseriya nomads.
It also contains one significant oilfield, Defra, part of a block run by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), a consortium led by China’s CNPC.
Afako said the mandate and size of the Ethiopian force were still being discussed, and that the peacekeepers would be deployed as soon as there was an agreement, adding it could be “a matter of days, or hours.”
“It will be at least two battalions,” he added.
Diplomats told Reuters Sunday that Bashir agreed to withdraw northern troops from Abyei before July 9.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking before her arrival in Addis Ababa during a stop in Tanzania, said the United States supported a proposal to put Ethiopian peacekeepers in Abyei and called on Khartoum to withdraw its troops from the area.
At the African Union, she repeated her call for both sides to redouble their efforts to resolve the situation “peacefully through negotiations, not violence.”
Writing by Alex Dziadosz; Editing by Matthew Jones