Court ruling looms on disputed Sudan oil-town

Over four years after a peace agreement ended Sudan's bloody civil war a ruling in the Hague may resolve control of a rich oil field, but may also spark more conflict.

By , Correspondent

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    An aerial view shows Abyei town after rainfall in central Sudan on Tuesday. Abyei lies at the heart of an oil-producing, pastoral district at the heart of Africa's largest country, straddling its undefined north-south border.
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Abyei is a town used to living on the edge.

Local residents wade ankle-deep in mud past bombed-out buildings and the carcasses of buses, a scenery of destruction that has become part of their everyday existence. Life like this seems close to normal after years of war between Sudan's government and southern rebels over who would control this town and the rich oil fields that surround it.

But any calm has been precarious, with Abyei along one of the most hotly disputed borders on the planet- the phantom line dividing northern Sudan from the semi-autonomous South. Some of Sudan's most prized oil fields are just north of here.

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On Wednesday, after years of legal wrangling and war, the Permanent Arbitration Court at The Hague is scheduled to rule on where Abyei's borders lie and whether the town – and its surrounding oil fields – will remain under northern control or could eventually become part of an independent South Sudan.

When (predominantly Muslim) north and (predominantly Christian) south signed a peace agreement in 2005, ending a 21-year civil war that had killed over 2 million people, a commission was assigned to determine the boundaries of Abyei area, an arcane process that involved defining tribal boundaries loosely established by British colonialists over a century ago. But the commission's findings, favorable to the south, were rejected by the government in Khartoum. Warfare soon resumed. Both sides eventual agreed that the arbitration court would be a fair judge, and have promised to abide by its ruling.

How much oil at stake?

But wounds are still fresh in the ethnically divided area, with some of the town's residents hoping the area around the oil fields will be awarded to the south, and some hoping it will remain under Khartoum's control. In 2011, the south will vote in a referendum to become independent from the north. Simultaneously, the Abyei area will vote on whether it wants to stay in the north or become part of the south. If, as expected, the south votes for independence and Abyei votes to join the south, the region's oil will go to the newly formed state.

How much money precisely is at stake is unclear. The International Crisis Group estimates the fields produced $529 million worth of oil in 2007, but warns they are rapidly becoming depleted. Some recent estimates suggest that while the Abyei area accounted for a quarter of Sudan's production as recently as 2003, that this may have slumped to under 10 percent now.

South Sudan officials say there's no transparency in terms of oil output or income, and they don't believe the north is giving them percentage agreed upon in the 2005 peace deal.

Thus far, there have been few signs of compromise. Last May an incident at a checkpoint turned into full-scale fighting between northern and southern troops. Within hours the center of Abyei was destroyed, scores of inhabitants were killed and an estimated 50,000 people fled their homes. Fourteen months later, most have still not returned.

Things have been much calmer since, with a new joint unit of northern and southern troops established to monitor the area and with the two armies having pulled back. The UN mission in Sudan, UNMIS, has a large base on the edge of town.

Tensions high

But there is a lot of anxiety here that the ruling in the Netherlands, 4,000 miles away, could lead to more trouble. Though both sides have agreed that the Hague verdict will be "final and binding," both sides also seem convinced that they will win. A lot of people are going to be disappointed, no matter the verdict.

In an area where rumors can displace entire towns and cause conflicts to break out, reports have come in of troop and heavy-weapon movements from both sides. Militias aligned to the north have reportedly moved towards Abyei recently and UNMIS says it is ramping up security measures ahead of the court ruling. The World Food Program says it has enough food to feed 50,000 displaced people stashed in a nearby town.

"It would behoove both sides to be careful not to inflame the situation in the Abyei area any further,'' says Vanessa Parra, a spokeswoman for Refugees International, which works extensively in the region.

On the day of the decision a high-level delegation of local and international dignitaries, including US special envoy Scott Gration will fly into Abyei to help calm any tensions.

"Whatever the decision, we know for sure that one side is likely to be disappointed," said Charles Abyei, the speaker of the area's legislative council. "We just hope that it can be resolved peacefully."

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