UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council demanded on Thursday that Sudan immediately and unconditionally withdraw troops from the disputed Abyei border region but Khartoum pledged only to do so after a joint military observer body was created for the area.
The 15-member council renewed a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Abyei, a region containing fertile grazing land that is claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan, and expressed deep concern at delays in establishing an Abyei Area Administration.
Khartoum took Abyei in May last year - triggering the exodus of tens of thousands of civilians - after an attack on a Sudanese army convoy from the south.
There are 3,800 Ethiopian peacekeepers in Abyei after the council initially authorized the deployment last June.
South Sudan withdrew its 700-strong police force from Abyei last week but Sudan’s deputy U.N. envoy, Idris Ismail Faragalla Hassan, on Thursday criticized the move as the wrong approach.
“The withdrawal should take place simultaneously and it should be monitored by a body agreed upon by the two parties,” Hassan told reporters. “What happened is that the government of South Sudan took a piecemeal approach, not the comprehensive approach that the government of Sudan is calling for.”
South Sudan seceded from Sudan in July, six months after a referendum agreed under a 2005 peace deal, ending decades of civil war that killed more than 2 million people. A referendum also had been planned for Abyei to decide if it would join the north or the south but was never held because the sides cannot agree on who can participate.
Hassan said former South African President Thabo Mbeki, head of a high-level AU panel given the job of resolving the north and south disputes, was in Khartoum on Thursday to meet with Sudanese officials and that positive results could be expected.
In the resolution to renew the mandate of the peacekeeping force in Abyei, the Security Council welcomed the withdrawal of South Sudan’s police from the area and demanded “the government of Sudan redeploy all remaining military and police personnel from the Abyei area immediately and without preconditions.”
The council also demanded Sudan and South Sudan “urgently finalize the establishment of the Abyei Area Administration” and described the situation in Abyei as a “serious threat to international peace and security.”
South Sudan’s U.N. ambassador, Francis Nazario, told reporters his government was willing to resume talks with Sudan and demanded its neighbor withdraw troops from Abyei.
“My government regrets the progress on the implementation of certain elements of ... an agreement on Abyei area remains impeded and it is fully prepared to move forward with the establishment of an Abyei Area Administration,” Nazario said.
The United Nations said in March that Sudan had 400 to 500 troops in Abyei and South Sudan had about 300 soldiers based less than 2 miles south of its border with Abyei.
Recent border clashes between Sudan and South Sudan, which culminated with South Sudan seizing a disputed oil field, prompted the Security Council to pass a resolution on May 2 threatening sanctions if the two sides did not follow an African Union roadmap stipulating a ceasefire and a return to talks.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said on Wednesday that violence between Sudan and South Sudan seemed to have dropped significantly since the resolution was passed.
“Although they remain poised, locked and loaded one might say, on various parts of the border,” Rice told reporters.
Distrust runs deep between the neighbors, who are at loggerheads over the position of their shared border and how much the landlocked south should pay to transport its oil through Sudan.
Analysts have long said tensions between the countries could erupt into a full-blown war and disrupt the surrounding region, which includes some of Africa’s most promising economies.