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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.

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In any case, proxy militia or military involvement seems very likely. Ngok Dinka claim the Misseriya who attacked the police post of Maker Adhan were armed and reinforced by northern security forces, including the oil police that guard fields that were formerly part of Abyei, until the 2009 Hague ruling altered the existing but disputed boundaries. Some Misseriya accuse the joint north-south police force providing security in Abyei of being dominated by southern army soldiers disguised as police.

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'Joint integrated units'

The town of Abyei is humming with armed men in several different uniforms. The “joint integrated units,” from the northern and southern armies, also socialize in the market, with the northern officers drinking tea in one stand and southern officers mingling with their friends in another area.

Meanwhile, blue camouflage signals the presence of the Abyei police, who are also meant to be a joint north-south force, but who seem dominated by commando-style young officers in pick-ups armed with heavy machine guns not typically used by the police, even in Southern Sudan.

As one observer who couldn’t be named due to his position in the Abyei government noted, these police officers are “trained as soldiers.”

The joint north-south police force was created in the aftermath of the 2008 violence, and although the joint military units do limited patrolling in Abyei, the police remain the main security force for the territory.

No longer safe

Today, as the future of the region remains to be determined, Abyei is not a safe place for any of its residents or would-be returnees, thousands of whom are camped in Khartoum waiting to move home until security improves.

James Nyoi, 28, arrived in Abyei a week ago on a bus convoy full of Abyei residents returning home after years spent living in the north. He says armed Misseriya and some men wearing northern army uniforms dragged him off a bus as the convoy attempted to pass near the near the oil installation of Diffra, which the 2009 Hague ruling placed outside the boundaries of Abyei.

They took the $450 he had in his pocket – all of his savings – and his cellphone and beat him over the head with sticks. Eventually the convoy was allowed to pass, with Mr. Nyoi and other traumatized passengers back on board. “These are bad people,” says Nyoi. “You cannot describe them as part of humanity.”

Bus drivers in Abyei say they’re afraid to ply their usual route to Khartoum.

“In this kind of situation where we are living, I don’t think I’ll be going [back to Khartoum],” says Biong Kuol, who drives a bus boasting the phrase “military experience” along with iconic photographs of the late southern war hero John Garang and the current southern president Salva Kiir.

If violence resumes on a larger scale, which could take the form of Misseriya and allied militias pushing through police stations like the one they were repulsed from last weekend, it is not clear how the violence could be contained and by whom.

With local trust of authorities like the Abyei government and the UN peacekeepers stationed in the town at a low, anticipation that the people of Abyei will be abandoned as they were in 2008, when Sudan’s northern and southern militaries clashed and 60,000 people fled south.

“They are ready to run,” says David Deng, an American who lives in Abyei and is the son of a well-known politician from the area. “That’s their plan and they know how to protect the women and children,” he said, noting that many had done this in 2008.

RELATED: How a residency dispute in one key town could lead Sudan back to war

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