South Sudan threatens to retaliate against North in border dispute

South Sudan says the North is at risk of breaking a fragile 2005 peace deal that ended two decades of civil war.

Stuart Price/ Reuters
Smoke rise from burnt homes in Abyei town, in this handout photo released by the United Nations Mission in Sudan May 23. North Sudan's Army on Monday vowed to hold territory it seized over the weekend in the disputed region, defying a UN demand it withdraw and pushing the North and South closer to conflict as the south prepares to secede on July 9. Analysts fear north-south fighting over Abyei could reignite civil war.

The growing possibility of civil war over Sudan's most disputed border zone was confirmed Monday when the South Sudanese army said it would retaliate if the North's army continued to move south.

"Our mission is to protect the borders … any step south of this [North-South] border will not be tolerated," says South Sudan's military spokesman Philip Aguer.

On Saturday, northern forces seized the strategic, contested border town of Abyei and Mr. Aguer is warning the North that it is at risk of shattering the fragile 2005 peace deal that ended two decades of war.

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Now, in a bid to deescalate tensions, US envoy Princeton Lyman is warning that the North has risked debt relief worth billions of dollars by seizing Abyei.

Mr. Lyman told the Monitor in a Sunday phone interview that it was crucial for the North's President Omar al-Bashir and South Sudan President Salva Kiir to meet to discuss the crisis.

With a UN Security Council delegation currently in the country, South Sudanese officials have appealed to the international community to force the withdrawal of the North's army from Abyei.

The Security Council called for the North's withdrawal at a press conference in Khartoum yesterday, but the North has struck a defensive tone and top officials refused to meet with the delegation. Mr. Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes for his role in the unresolved Darfur conflict, was not invited to meet with the delegation.

Roots of the dispute over Abyei

A series of internationally-brokered agreements since 2005 have failed to contain the continually volatile situation in Abyei, which first exploded in 2008 when the North's army razed the town. 
The referendum the people of Abyei were promised in the 2005 peace deal was not held as scheduled in January due to a dispute between the North and South regarding who could vote.

The North's government said that the semi-nomadic, Arab Misseriya people must be allowed to vote, while the soon-to-be independent South Sudanese government rejected that the Misseriya counted as residents.

Abyei is a fertile patch of borderland shared by two populations with different loyalties. The Ngok Dinka people claim the land as their historical homeland, support the South’s government, and hope that Abyei will join the South when the new nation – the Republic of South Sudan – is officially formed on July 9.

The Arab Misseriya people seasonally graze from North Sudan south through Abyei to reach the Bahr el Arab, a river also known as the Kiir, to water their herds.

Oil and armies

Although a journalist tag line for Abyei used to be "oil-rich," a 2009 international arbitration on the disputed boundaries of the entire Abyei region sliced the most lucrative oil fields out of the territory, rendering them part of the North. The new borders have not yet been officially demarcated due to security concerns and the build-up of both North and South forces in the territory.

Oil or not, Abyei is a front line because of the emotional ties and strategic influence both the north and south ascribe to the territory. Neither side is willing to give the territory up without a fight.

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On Saturday, the North Army occupied the town with tanks, according to the United Nations, and sent South Sudanese troop fleeing, both governments said.

Exodus from the town

The independent medical aid group Doctors Without Borders told the Christian Science Monitor on Monday that they evacuated their staff from Abyei on Saturday and sent them to a town to the south to begin assisting wounded civilians.

Gustavo Fernandez of Doctors Without Borders says that by the time the group's staff were evacuated, "most of the civilians" had left Abyei town, leaving it "pretty empty."

Tens of thousands of Abyei residents have reportedly fled south to the town of Agok, where Doctors Without Borders operates a hospital. Mr. Fernandez says the group is treating gunshot wound victims admitted Friday and Saturday, as well as severely dehydrated children.

However, many of those displaced to Agok have already begun moving farther south, says Fernandez, out of fear of further attacks by the North's Army.

"This also affects our patients," he added. "Many are afraid of the situation [and] requested our doctors to discharge them."

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"There's panic among the civilian population because the [North Army] has been using long-range artillery and flying Antonovs near Agok," Aguer told the Monitor yesterday.

On Monday evening, Doctors Without Borders, the last aid group remaining in the town of Agok, relocated its staff to safety due to the threat of North troops moving south.

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