* Less than six weeks remain before southern independence
* Northern official denies army attacking civilians
* Ethiopia minister says Juba, U.N. requested peacekeepers
(Adds Sudan president comments on Abyei, economy)
By Jeremy Clarke and Khaled Abdelaziz
JUBA/KHARTOUM June 2 (Reuters) - Nearly 100 civilians have been killed in Sudan’s disputed Abyei region since the northern military seized it on May 21, an Abyei official said on Thursday, citing a preliminary count.
South Sudan is scheduled to break off into its own country on July 9, and the status of the fertile, oil-producing territory has remained one of the most contentious issues in the countdown to independence.
Violence in Abyei over the last two weeks has raised fears that the north and south could return to war, which could destabilise much of the region by sending refugees back across borders and creating a failed state in the south.
Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said in a speech on Thursday that what happened in Abyei was an “important message” for southern leaders, who he said provoked the fighting.
“We both need peace, but they are in greater need of peace because the needs of southern citizens are larger and resources are scarce,” he told members of the ruling northern National Congress Party in Khartoum.
Both Juba and the United Nations have asked Ethiopia to send peacekeeping troops to Abyei, but no decisions will be taken unless Khartoum also asks for the forces to be sent, an Ethiopian official told Reuters.
International organisations have warned of a humanitarian crisis in the area of Abyei after tens of thousands of people fled looting and fighting, many walking on foot down roads turned to mud in seasonal rains.
“We are waiting for final confirmation with names, but the (death) toll is close to 100 people, not more,” Deng Arop Kuol, who was appointed chief administrator of the region, told Reuters.
Khartoum announced it had sacked Kuol after occupying the territory, a move southern officials denounced as illegal because it did not involve deliberation with the south.
Civilian death tolls are often politically sensitive in Sudan, which was ravaged by decades of civil war, and it was not possible to verify the figures independently.
“These are civilians. Some died during the attack, some in SAF (Sudanese Armed Forces) patrols in the days after,” Kuol added, referring to the northern military by its formal name.
He accused the northern army of killing a dozen people in an Abyei village during a patrol on May 23.
A spokesman for the northern army was not available to comment, but a senior official with the northern ruling party denied the army had attacked any civilians.
“This is incorrect,” Rabie Abdelati, a senior official at the information ministry, said. “I do not think the SAF attack or target civilians”.
Losing the south, and with it most of the country’s oil fields, could put Khartoum in a difficult economic position as it tries to offset lost revenues, analysts say.
Bashir said the government had prepared a three-year economic plan to cut government spending and make other changes to deal with the loss of the south.
Measures would also include reviewing the state structure and diversifying exports, but not imposing new taxes, he said.
Tensions mounted in Abyei after an attack on northern troops and U.N. peacekeepers blamed on southern forces on May 20. Khartoum seized Abyei’s main town the next day and has defied calls from the United States and United Nations to withdraw.
A satellite monitoring project said this week it had documented evidence northern forces may have committed “war crimes” in the region, a charge Khartoum has denied.
The Satellite Sentinel Project said late on Wednesday that former U.S. civilian and military officials had backed up its claims, and that it had sent the information to the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court.
Ethiopia said this week it would send peacekeepers to the region if both Juba and Khartoum requested it. [ID:nLDE74U1ZV]
“There has been a request from the United Nations and the south Sudan government, but not from Khartoum,” Ethiopian Foreign Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told Reuters.
He said other conditions for Ethiopian deployment included that the U.N. agrees to let peacekeepers go in with “full equipment” and that the mission have Ethiopian command.
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir said last week the south would not go to war over the incursion into Abyei. (Writing by Alex Dziadosz in Khartoum; Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa and Alex Dziadosz in Khartoum; Editing by Diana Abdallah)