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Battle for Abyei could ignite civil war in Sudan

As many as 80,000 people have reportedly fled Abyei since northern Sudanese troops seized the symbolic border town last month.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer, Maggie FickCorrespondent / May 27, 2011

Internally displaced people gather in Turalei, in the south's Twic county, about 80 miles from Abyei town on Friday. About 80,000 people have fled since the north Sudanese armed forces seized the oil-producing town almost a week ago, a southern official said, doubling previous estimates of the displaced.

Jeremy Clarke/Reuters

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Johannesburg, South Africa; and Mayen Abun, South Sudan

When northern Sudanese troops seized the disputed border town of Abyei last month, it was a sign that the fragile six-year-old peace between North and South Sudan was teetering on the brink. Some called it the first shots of Sudan's next civil war, following the two-decade-long war that killed an estimated 2 million people.

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Like the more well-known conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region, the North-South civil war began as a result of local disputes, a feeling by many southerners that the Islamist-dominated northern government was neglecting its duties to the South. And between the two sides, Abyei rose as a symbolic prize – a Kashmir or a Jerusalem – that must be fought for and defended at all costs.

Now, Abyei could pull the divided nation back into war just weeks before South Sudan officially secedes on July 9.

"It's probably the worst-case scenario," said a United Nations humanitarian worker not authorized to speak on the record.

The UN estimates at least 30,000 have fled Abyei and surrounding villages as a result of recent fighting. According to some local officials, that number is closer to 80,000.

Speaking during a recent trip to Khartoum – the capital of northern Sudan – representatives of the UN Security Council called on the North to withdraw troops from Abyei. But the regime of President Omar al-Bashir – who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur – is digging in its heels. "Abyei belongs to North Sudan," he said emphatically, days after his troops seized Abyei.

"[Mr. Bashir] is doing this because he's looking at the oil we have and [at] our productive land," says Kuei Deng, who fled Abyei with her daughter, daughter-in-law, and several grandchildren. "That's why he's killing us, to make us leave the land. We believe we are southerners. We are Christians. That's why they are doing this."

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