KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Soldiers from north Sudan’s army clashed with southern forces in the oil-producing border region of Abyei, killing 14, the United Nations said on Tuesday in the latest violence in the contested region.
The United Nations said it was unclear who had started the fighting late on Sunday but north and south blamed each other. Analysts say Abyei is one of the most likely places for conflict to ignite prior to the secession of southern Sudan in July.
A north Sudanese army convoy of six vehicles with mounted machineguns entered the border region on Sunday, Abyei’s chief administrator Deng Arop Kuol, a southerner, told Reuters.
“They had no authorisation,” he added, referring to an internationally-brokered agreement that only a special joint north-south force should patrol Abyei.
“Shooting broke out after an army major insisted on entering and police stopped the convoy ... This was a plan to invade,” Kuol said.
But Sudanese Interior Minister Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamad told Reuters southern police forces had attacked the convoy first.
He said the convoy had been sent to reinforce the joint north-south force after the southern army had earlier sent more troops to the region, a charge the south denies.
“The (southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) SPLM brought its component from the joint forces, but when the (northern) Sudanese Armed Forces brought its components it was attacked,” he said.
The United Nations said it had recovered the bodies of eleven members of the joint forces from north and south and three civilians at the scene of fighting in Abyei.
The south, where most follow Christian and traditional beliefs, overwhelmingly voted to declare independence from the mostly Muslim north in a January referendum promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war.
Both sides have built up troops and heavy weapons around the underdeveloped Abyei region, according to satellite images and the United Nations.
Last week, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said he would not recognise south Sudan as an independent state if it did not give up a claim on Abyei.
Sudan’s north and south have fought for all but a few years since 1955 over oil, ethnicity, religion and ideology. The conflict killed an estimated 2 million people and destabilised much of east Africa.
Abyei residents were also supposed to have a referendum in January over whether to join the north or south. Disputes over who could vote derailed that ballot and talks over the status of the region have stalled.
Northern and southern leaders have also made little progress in talks over a range of issues including how they will divide up debts and assets, and how the south might pay the north to transport oil after the split.
In south Sudan, which has seen a wave of violence ahead of the split, dozens of people were killed in tribal clashes and cattle raids, the southern army said on Tuesday.
“We do not have confirmed numbers but we understand more than 30 have been killed,” army spokesman Philip Aguer said.
A U.N. source confirmed a sharp escalation in cattle rustling between tribes in Jonglei state in the last two weeks.