JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir called on north Sudan Thursday to withdraw its forces from the disputed Abyei region but said there would be no war over the incursion and it would not derail independence.
North Sudanese armed forces seized control of the oil-producing Abyei region Saturday, forcing tens of thousands to flee and sparking an international outcry seven weeks before south Sudan secedes to form a new nation.
“We will not go back to war, it will not happen,” Kiir told reporters in Juba, the capital of south Sudan which is due to become independent on July 9.
Abyei was a key battleground in a north/south civil war that ended in 2005 and both sides see it as a symbolic emblem. The fertile region is used all year round by the Dinka Ngok people, who have strong ethnic links to the south, and for part of the year by northern Misseriya nomads.
Southerners voted for secession in a January referendum, a vote that was promised in the 2005 peace deal that ended the civil war.
Analysts fear a north Sudanese land grab could spark a return to full-blown conflict, a development that would have a devastating impact on the region by sending refugees back across borders and creating a failed state in the south at birth.
Khartoum has defied U.S. and U.N. calls, saying it will not withdraw from land it says belongs to the north. A monitoring group that uses satellite images said it had spotted more north Sudanese armor in positions that could be deployed to the area.
Southern Information Minister Barnaba Benjamin said the north was moving “thousands” of Misseriya tribesmen, who are supported by Khartoum, into Ngok villages.
In north Sudan, 200 mostly student demonstrators held a rally at the defense ministry in the capital Khartoum to support the northern army. “One army, one people,” they chanted.
Kiir called on Sudan’s overall President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to pull out northern forces from the area that contains fertile grazing land.
“We fought enough ... We made peace,” Kiir said. “The south will become independent on July 9. Whether the north recognizes the south or not, that is not the problem.”
Whole settlements have been emptied during the fighting, and thousands of people had fled down roads turned to mud in the region’s rainy season, charity Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) said in a statement.
The United Nations in Sudan said around 15,000 displaced people had arrived in Turalei in south Sudan, about 130 km (80 miles) from Abyei town. Another 4,000 were staying in nearby Mayen Abun village and unknown numbers were believed to have fled elsewhere, it added.
A Washington-based monitoring organization, Satellite Sentinal Project, said imagery and analysis indicated the north Sudanese armed forces had gathered heavy armor and artillery around El Obeid, about 430 km (270 miles) north of Abyei.
John Prendergast of the Enough Project, which supports Sentinel, said in a statement the imagery showed the Sudanese government “is prepared to intensify military operations in Abyei and along the contested border, where most of Sudan’s oil lies.”
He said Khartoum “seeks to intimidate the government of Southern Sudan and the international community into deeper compromises at the negotiating table over critical issues of border demarcation, the disposition of oil revenues, and the future status of Abyei.”
Abyei remains the most contentious point in the countdown to the secession of the south, the source of 75 percent of the country’s 500,000 barrels a day oil production.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said there was “real concern that the government of Sudan may have taken a decision to continue to occupy Abyei for its own political advantage for an indefinite period.”
She told reporters after returning from a Security Council trip to Africa that Khartoum’s “blatant violation” of the 2005 peace deal “makes the resolution not only of Abyei but of other crucial issues that remain unresolved much more difficult.”
The 2005 deal promised Abyei residents their own referendum over whether to join north or south, but that did not take place as neither side could agree who was qualified to vote.
Writing by Ulf Laessing in Khartoum and Edmund Blair in Cairo; Additional reporting by Khaled Abdelaziz and Alexander Dziadosz in Khartoum; Editing by Andrew Heavens