ADDIS ABABA/KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan’s president agreed to pull northern troops out of the disputed Abyei border region before the south secedes on July 9, diplomats said on Sunday, signaling possible progress in talks before the split.
Fighting in border states Abyei and Southern Kordofan, has raised fears of a return to full-blown conflict. The border’s exact position has yet to be defined.
Khartoum seized control of Abyei on May 21, provoking an international outcry and complicating talks over other sensitive issues such as how to divide oil revenue and how to split national debt after secession, opted for in a January vote.
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who had previously refused to withdraw troops from Abyei, was in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to meet the south’s President Salva Kiir to discuss the disputed region and other unresolved issues.
“President Bashir has agreed to pull his troops out before July 9 with Ethiopia sending two battalions as peacekeepers. They will be deployed under the U.N. flag,” one diplomat said.
A second diplomat confirmed Bashir had agreed to the troop withdrawal and the deployment of Ethiopian peacekeepers.
Tens of thousands of people fled fighting and looting after northern tanks and troops entered Abyei’s main town. The occupation followed an attack on northern troops and U.N. peacekeepers that was blamed on southern forces.
Ethiopia has said it would consider sending peacekeeping troops to the region if both Khartoum and Juba requested them.
“The (Ethiopian) unit has already been identified and is only waiting for a green light from the U.N. Security Council,” the diplomat, who asked not to be named, added.
January’s independence vote was promised by a 2005 north-south peace deal. The two sides fought for decades over oil, religion, ethnicity and ideology, a conflict that killed an estimated 2 million people.
The talks in Ethiopia came as north Sudan’s ruling party warned the south against supporting a “rebellion” in the Southern Kordofan border state, saying such a move could affect recognition of the south when it secedes.
The northern army has been fighting southern-aligned groups in Southern Kordofan, the north’s main oil state, for more than a week.
The United Nations estimates tens of thousands have fled the conflict, and humanitarian organizations fear a mounting death toll although few casualties have been confirmed.
“If the southern government ... continues to disrupt stability in the north, it will greatly affect the issue of recognizing the nascent southern state and efforts to maintain good cooperative relations between the two nations,” the state news agency SUNA said, citing northern official Haj Majid Suwar.
The report described the fighting as a rebellion.
A southern military spokesman denied suggestions Juba was supporting fighters in Southern Kordofan, saying they were no longer part of its army, although they are referred to as members of the south’s Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA).
“There is no link between southern Sudan and the rebels in Southern Kordofan. These people look after their own affairs. We have the same name, that is it,” spokesman Philip Aguer said.
Both sides have traded accusations over who started the fighting. Officials with the south’s dominant party, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM), have said it began when northern forces tried to disarm anti-government troops there.
Northern officials say the armed groups started the clashes.
A separate SUNA statement Sunday said SPLA members killed six people and wounded 11 when they attacked a car near the Southern Kordofan town of Dilling. It did not give a source.
Southern-aligned fighters also attacked a convoy carrying Southern Kordofan’s governor Ahmed Haroun as he headed from the airport to the state capital Kadugli within the last few days, northern military spokesman Al-Sawarmi Khaled said.
Analysts say a protracted and bloody conflict could continue long after secession in Southern Kordofan because it is home to thousands of fighters, largely from the Nuba mountains region, who sided with the south during the last civil war.
Tensions were stoked in Southern Kordofan after Haroun, a member of the northern ruling National Congress Party, was named winner of a gubernatorial election last month. The south said the vote was rigged, which the north denied.
There are also fears that fighting may erupt in the northern Blue Nile state, where Aguer said Khartoum was moving troops.
“Forces going to Blue Nile left from Khartoum yesterday. If they are not careful the same thing happening in Southern Kordofan will happen in Blue Nile,” he said.
Northern army spokesman Khaled said any problems in Blue Nile would be solved diplomatically and Khartoum is free to move troops into Blue Nile because it is a northern state.
“I can assure that we are not preparing for a war in Blue Nile,” he said.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Clarke in Juba and Khaled Abdelaziz; Writing by Alex Dziadosz; Editing by Louise Ireland