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KHARTOUM, May 24 (Reuters) - North Sudan will not withdraw from the disputed Abyei region it seized over the weekend, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said on Tuesday, raising the stakes in a standoff over the territory with the south.
“Abyei is northern Sudanese land,” Bashir said in a speech in the capital Khartoum. “We will not withdraw from it.”
He added he had given the green light to the northern army to respond to any possible “provocation” by the army of south Sudan which also claims Abyei and plans to become independent on July 9.
North Sudan took control of Abyei by moving tanks into the main settlement on the weekend after weeks of tensions, forcing tens of thousands to flee and sparking an international outcry.
The escalation came after the United Nations said southern forces had attacked a U.N. convoy escorting northern soldiers as they pulled out of Abyei on Thursday.
“The attack on the armed forces and the U.N. was the biggest war crime,” Bashir told teachers in a speech.
Analysts are watching how the south will react, fearing further north-south fighting over Abyei, which has oil and grazing land, could reignite a full-blown conflict that would disrupt the already fragile region.
Southern officials on Monday accused the north of trying to provoke a new civil war. Sudan’s last north/south conflict ended in a 2005 peace deal that allowed southerners to vote overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum in January.
The 2005 peace deal also promised Abyei residents their own referendum over whether to join the north or south, but that never took place as neither side could agree who was qualified to vote. (Reporting by Khaled Abdelaziz, writing by Ulf Laessing, editing by Andrew Heavens)