KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan’s north and south have deployed forces with heavy weapons to disputed Abyei, militarising the tinderbox oil-producing region, the U.N. peacekeeping mission’s force commander said on Wednesday.
His comments were the first independent confirmation of satellite images that activists said showed a build-up of troops in Abyei, a central region claimed by both sides that have waged a north-south civil war for much of the past five decades.
South Sudan will become independent in July following a referendum that produced an overwhelming vote for statehood.
“We have evidence that both sides have militarised Abyei,” Moses Obi, a Nigerian, told reporters. “We’ve seen all sorts of armed elements in Abyei that ordinarily are not supposed to be there,” he added.
He added that forces from both north and south were carrying weapons like rocket-propelled grenades, Browning machine guns loaded onto vehicles and multi-barrelled rocket launchers.
Analysts fear Abyei, which has witnessed multiple clashes since a 2005 north-south peace deal, could spark renewed conflict if left to fester and the U.N. Security Council held closed-door talks on the dispute last week.
Sudan’s south, where 75 percent of the country’s 500,000 bpd of oil production now lies, will secede in July but oil-sharing, a contentious border and citizenship remain unresolved thorny issues, with Abyei the most protracted dispute.
Obi said soldiers from both armies were deployed near enough to Abyei to be dragged into any escalation of hostilities there.
“This is quite worrying. There have been deaths, there have been displacements, and if the stalemate continues politically the risk of confrontation remains and it could escalate.”
Obi, who commands the 10,000-strong peacekeeping mission in Africa’s largest country, said both sides agreed in principle that joint north-south forces should be the only troops in Abyei.
But he said a political solution would be the only way to preserve peace in the tense region.