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Obama congratulates South Sudan on independence vote, but what about Abyei?

Clashes over who controls the disputed border region of Abyei – and its oil – could greatly complicate South Sudan's move toward independence.

By Maggie FickCorrespondent / January 16, 2011

An election official shows a pro independence ballot as votes are tallied at polling station in Juba, South Sudan, Saturday. The division of Sudan into two countries has has been complicated by border disputes over Abyei and its oil.

Jerome Delay/AP

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Abyei, Sudan

South Sudan is rejoicing over the peaceful conduct of its long-awaited vote for independence and the international community is lauding the process. President Obama called the referendum on whether the semiautonomous region will secede from Sudan "an inspiration to the world."

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But a hotly contested zone in the heart of Sudan is once again threatening to explode – an event that could derail all efforts toward a peaceful divorce in Africa’s largest country.

The tug of war between the north and south over the future of the oil-rich border town of Abyei has heated up in the past week. A series of clashes between the two tribes who stake claim to the territory illustrate how the future of this region – and of Sudan – remain up for grabs.

Here on the north-south faultline, northern Arab herdsmen – whose large herds need Abyei’s fertile pasturelands and the river that cuts through the territory – have long been at odds with the Ngok Dinka people, mostly non-Arab farmers who claim that international court rulings and peace deals meant to protect their ancestral rights to this land have been repeatedly dishonored.

While southerners have turned out en masse since Sunday to decide the future of their oil-rich but underdeveloped, Texas-sized territory, the residents of Abyei have been denied that right, partly because the ruling parties in the north and south could not agree on the definition of an Abyei resident, and therefore who should be eligible to vote in the Abyei referendum.

Although conventional wisdom on Abyei says that the region’s oil deposits are the reason why neither Khartoum or Juba are willing to cede ground on Abyei, experts say the issue is more about the challenges of Sudan’s diverse populations living together and sharing land that both believe is rightfully theirs based on their community’s histories and lore.

Some Misseriya and Ngok Dinka leaders say they think the other group is being manipulated by higher political interests in the north and south. At a conference this week in the capital of the northern state of South Kordofan, which borders Abyei and is home to much of the Misseriya population that migrates south into the area, tribal leaders pledged to band together to appeal to the Sudanese presidency – which includes president Omar al-Bashir and the southern leader Salva Kiir – to find a solution for Abyei.

Recent clashes

Accounts of the attacks which occurred around 10 miles northwest of Abyei vary widely, but according to a number of Ngok Dinka sources in Abyei and to various southern officials, about a half dozen police were killed while defending an outpost attacked by armed Misseriya and assorted Khartoum-backed militia fighters just north of a village of Ngok Dinka. For their part, Misseriya elders claim the police fired on them, and that herders were merely defending themselves.

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