Sudan negotiates amid ethnic cleansing reports

In this photo provided by the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), unidentified armed uniformed men walk past the burning huts of businesses and homesteads in the center of Abyei town, Sudan Saturday, May 28, 2011. Tens of thousands of Sudanese are fleeing from the contested north-south border region of Abyei, and the top U.S. official in the region warned Friday of a humanitarian crisis over the north's invasion. AP Photo/UNMIS, Stuart Price

South Sudan voted recently to peacefully secede from the north after many years of fighting, and it all seemed to be going smoothly, until the question arose of who controls the rich oil fields that lie between them.

North Sudan responded to the question by rolling tanks into the border town of Abyei and, according to U.N. and NGO reports, starting to ethnically cleanse the area of southern sympathizers.

The accusations over the Abyei conflict amounted to this: Northern Sudan used its army to seize control of the disputed area, drove out many of the traditional ethnic inhabitants, and has begun importing its own so that if and when there is a vote to decide whom the town belongs to, the north will win.

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The Satellite Sentinel Project said in a statement over the weekend that satellite images by DigitalGlobe show that the Sudanese army burned about one third of all civilian buildings in the north-south border town, used disproportionate force and indiscriminately targeted civilians.

Later, United Nations officials said a northern Sudanese general revealed this week that there was a plan to send tens of thousands of nomadic ethnic Arabs into Abyei, which has a long history of being occupied by southern Dinka people. Other officials said as many as 35,000 children were driven from their homes by the north's actions.

However, the seizure of Abyei followed an attack on a convoy of northern soldiers by southern forces on May 19. The north initially responded by two days of aerial bombardment of the area by the north.

For now, north and south Sudan have agreed to establish a jointly patrolled demilitarized border zone between the two sides as the south prepares to declare independence in July, the African Union said Tuesday.

Such a buffer could lower the chances of an accidental north-south clash. But its implementation depends on the two sides reaching an agreement over the demarcation of the border, an issue that has long been contentious.

The deal could also be disrupted by other outstanding issues, such as the sharing of oil rights between north and south.

North and south Sudan fought two civil wars off and on over more than four decades before signing a 2005 peace deal. But the sides' relations took a nosedive earlier this month when the northern Sudanese army invaded and seized Abyei.

The military action came after months of building tensions between the two armies in Abyei, a fertile, oil-producing border zone which both the north and south claim. It sent an estimated 80,000 residents of the area running for their lives, fleeing into villages and towns in the southern state of Warrap, which is now experiencing what Western diplomats and U.N. humanitarian officials have called a perfect storm of factors resulting in food, fuel, and shelter shortages.

The U.N. Security Council has called for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the northern army from Abyei, but the government of President Omar al-Bashir has not made any concessions. On the evening of May 26, the northern army bombed and destroyed the strategic bridge across the Bahr el Arab, called the River Kiir by southerners, which forms the 1956 border in the area.

Adding to the tenuousness of the peace, Sudan informed the United Nations on Tuesday that it wants the U.N. peacekeeping force to leave its territory when South Sudan becomes independent on July 9, saying it is committed to peace with its new neighbor, despite current indications otherwise.

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