ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - The latest round of talks between north and south Sudan on the future of the oil-producing Abyei region, has failed to reach agreement, the parties said on Tuesday.
Sudan is three months away from the scheduled start of a referendum on whether Abyei should join the north or south — a vote promised as part of the 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war.
“Despite serious efforts and many productive discussions, (the delegations) did not succeed in reaching agreement on the eligibility criteria for voters in the Abyei Area referendum,” the north’s National Congress Party (NCP) and the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) said in a joint statement.
“They will meet again in Ethiopia toward the end of October to continue their discussions. The parties continue to commit themselves to their mutual goal of avoiding a return to conflict,” the statement said.
The head of the southern delegation, however, warned Sudan could return to war without agreement, calling the nine days of talks a failure, a position rejected by his nothern counterpart.
“This round has failed,” said Pagan Amum, secretary-general of the SPLM. “We are left with 90 days. Time is very critical.
“If the parties fail to sort out these issues this could lead to an end of the peace process itself. And the peace may unravel in Sudan,” he told reporters in the Ethiopian capital, where the talks were held.
Salah Gosh, chief NCP negotiator and special security adviser to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, said he was still hopeful of a deal despite the setback.
“We believe the two parties now agree not to go back to war and we as the Congress Party will not go back to war,” he said.
“We say to the Sudanese people, and especially to the people of Abyei, to be calm and to save the situation because we still hope to tackle the issue and by end of this month and I believe we will reach a conclusion.”
Delegates told Reuters that Sudanese Second Vice-President Ali Osman Taha was flying to Juba on Tuesday to meet south Sudan President Salva Kiir in an attempt to salvage the talks.
One observer at the talks, who declined to be identified, said former South African President Thabo Mbeki had offered to mediate when negotiations resumed.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had urged Khartoum to come to the talks prepared to negotiate. The Obama administration’s special envoy for Sudan, Scott Gration, participated in the talks.
At the same time as the Abyei plebiscite, there will be a referendum on whether south Sudan should secede from the north. That vote is widely expected to bring about Africa’s newest state, a prospect opposed by Khartoum.
Delegates in Addis Ababa told Reuters one possible solution to the impasse was to forego the referendum on Abyei and divide its territory between the north and the south.
But delegates said the teams were unable to agree on border demarcation and what would qualify as Abyei citizenship.
The SPLM says the Khartoum government is settling thousands of Missiriya, a tribe from central Sudan, in northern Abyei to influence the vote. Khartoum denies this.
In a sign of mounting tension, south Sudan’s army told Reuters four northern soldiers walked into the centre of Abyei town on Monday evening and started shooting randomly in the air, slightly injuring one trader.