Sudan: ruling redefines borders of oil-rich area in south

International officials and Sudanese say the apparent compromise could be first step on road to peace.

Tim McKulka/UNMIS/Reuters
Sudanese women celebrate the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in Abyei, central Sudan, Wednesday.

An international court sought to end a Sudanese land dispute on Wednesday, ruling that a large portion of the area around Abyei in southern Sudan – including contested oil fields – should be ceded to the central government in Khartoum. (A pdf file of the full ruling is here, and a map of the new boundaries can be found here.)

That would appear to be a victory for the north, but the ruling by the Permanent Court for Arbitration in The Hague gives the south at least one rich oil field, control over the town of Abyei itself, and large swaths of fertile land.

Under a cease-fire signed by the Sudanese government and the Sudan People Liberation’s Movement (SPLM), a separatist group that has sought independence for the largely Christian south, the people of the area are scheduled to have an independence referendum in 2011. This ruling determined how much of the oil-rich area Sudan would lose if independence is chosen.

The ruling was awaited anxiously in Abyei itself. A year ago in May, a burst of renewed fighting between troops loyal to Khartoum and rebels killed scores of people, left the center of town in tatters, and caused more than 50,000 residents to be displaced from their homes – many of whom have yet to return.

The decision was hailed by both Khartoum and rebel leaders, a promising early sign that it may, as some as hoped, prevent a return to fighting. The Associated Press reports that representatives of the Dinka – the main ethnic group that supports independence in the area – marched in Abyei to celebrate the decision. Khartoum said it was happy it had gained control of most of the oil, and Riek Machar Teny, an SPLM leader, said that “I think this is going to consolidate peace in Sudan.”

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