WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sudan has risked $38 billion in potential debt relief and other incentives by occupying Abyei and must agree to resume talks on the disputed region quickly, the U.S. special envoy for Sudan said on Monday.
Ambassador Princeton Lyman said he would return to Sudan this week as diplomats scramble to defuse the crisis over oil-rich Abyei, which has pushed north and south Sudan close to conflict just weeks before south Sudan is due to declare independence on July 9.
Khartoum’s northern army vowed on Monday to hold territory it seized over the weekend in the disputed region, defying a United Nations demand it withdraw.
Lyman, named the Obama administration’s top diplomat for Sudan earlier this year, blamed both sides for violating their 2005 peace deal by sending forces into Abyei.
But he said Khartoum had overreacted badly by trying to seize the territory outright.
“Now the pressure is understandably and rightfully on them to withdraw and pull back,” Lyman told Reuters in an interview.
He said the Abyei invasion made it impossible for the United States to continue work on key incentives it has offered Khartoum: gradual steps toward full normalization of diplomatic ties, the removal of Sudan from the U.S. terrorism blacklist, and an international deal on debt relief.
The United States offered the package last year to encourage Khartoum to cooperate on a January referendum on southern independence and to improve conditions in the western region of Darfur.
The United States placed Sudan on its list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1993 and imposed economic, trade and financial sanctions in 1997 which were later supplemented by a United Nations arms embargo.
Lyman said the Abyei dispute could interrupt the delivery schedule for all of the incentives, noting that each required a series of specific steps that required verification.
“It is not a question of do you stop it now or turn it back on tomorrow. This is a long-term process that they are jeopardizing,” Lyman said.
Activist groups said on Monday that Khartoum’s latest move in Abyei, along with escalating violence in Darfur, showed it was not sincere in seeking a peaceful resolution to either conflict and called on the United States to shift from incentives to penalties to try to force compliance.
“If there is no cost to the Khartoum regime’s commission of atrocities and to the dishonoring of agreements, then why would anything change in Sudan?” said John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, an anti-genoide group.
“It is time to impose serious consequences for the Khartoum regime’s use of overwhelming military force to deal with every challenge it faces,” he said.
Lyman said that Sudan already faced the prospect of real consquences if it failed to shake off international sanctions at a time when its own economy faces the loss of southern oil revenue and rising inflation.
“They need to be part of the international financial community and that’s the incentive. But they can’t get there this way. And that’s the biggest consequence of all,” he said.
Lyman said he would convey this message to Khartoum officials on his trip to the region this week, which will also involve meetings in southern Sudan in an effort to get both sides back to the negotiating table.
The African Union’s mediator for Sudan, former President Thabo Mbeki, is also shuttling between the two sides and other African leaders are weighing in, urging them to step back from the conflict, Lyman said.
Lyman said the immediate goal was a withdrawal of forces from Abyei and strengthening the U.N. peacekeeping mission, but that this would be followed by concrete proposals on how to resolve outstanding issues between north and south, which also include division of future oil revenues.
“This is not a marriage made in heaven,” Lyman said. “The two may not kiss on the cheek but they do have to shake hands. They need each other, that’s the reality.”