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As world focuses on Libya, more than 100 killed in Sudan border town

This week’s attacks underscore how the disputed, oil-rich border town of Abyei has been used as a lightning rod by political leaders in both northern Sudan and soon-to-be independent South Sudan.

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Both governments are keen to attribute blame for the violence to the other. And with the long history of Abyei being used as a proxy during the two north-south civil wars that have ravaged the country since independence in 1956, it is likely that Khartoum and Juba will continue their finger-pointing instead of reaching an agreement on the future status of the region.

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The top government official in Abyei insists that the well-armed forces that attacked Maker Abyior on Wednesday were not merely Misseriya herders backed by Khartoum.

“These are not militias, these are Sudanese Armed Forces,” says Deng Arop Kuol, referring to the northern military. “These are government forces."

The UN mission has not yet visited the site of all the clashes this week, and the southern allegations of northern military involvement in the attacks have not been independently verified.

“It's hardly a surprise that tensions are mounting, and that violence is ongoing,” says Claire McEvoy of the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, a research group that studies conflict in Sudan.

“Indeed, we can expect more if the issue is not resolved in a just manner,” she added, noting that the denial of the right of the people of Abyei to determine their future in a referendum is “likely to lead to continued conflict in the area.”

No vote on Abyei

The 2005 north-south peace deal promised Abyei its own referendum that was to be held simultaneously with South Sudan’s independence vote. This referendum was not held because of disputes between the south’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the Khartoum-based National Congress Party.

On the eve of the south’s independence vote in early January, clashes erupted in several of the same villages that experienced violence this week. As with the latest round of fighting, the uncertain future of the people of Abyei seemed linked to the January violence.

The bloodshed in Abyei comes as the leaders of north and south are participating in high-level talks on a host of issues related to post-July relations between north and south.

On the table this week in the Ethiopian town of Debre Zeit are wealth-sharing arrangements – namely how Sudan’s oil sector will be managed after southern secession – and resolution of the impasse over demarcation of the country’s disputed, 1,300-mile north-south border, which includes Abyei and will form the sovereign dividing line before the two regions after the south separates.

Insiders to the talks speculated before they got underway on Tuesday that these negotiations will be key to determining if and how relations between the two sides have changed since the South's landslide vote to secede was announced on Feb. 7.

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