May 14, 2011 (LONDON) – A senior member of the South Sudanese government in Abyei claims that attacks which took place in the region on 1 May 2011 were part of an attempted occupation by the northern Sudanese army.

The Sudan Tribune has been forwarded photographs which the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) secretary in Abyei, Chol Changath claims are the ID cards found on the bodies of soldiers killed at the scene in recent clashes in Abyei. They were wearing Joint Integrated Unit (JIU) uniforms but their ID cards identify them as members of the north’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF).

JIU are made up of equal numbers of troops from north and South Sudan. They were formed in accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and are administered directly by the Sudanese presidency. They police the contested areas of Sudan’s borderlands and were intended to demonstrate a spirit of cooperation.

Abyei is a fiercely contested region on the north/south border. It is oil rich and of arguable statehood. It is overdue a referendum in which its citizens will be afforded a vote in which they can choose to be part of north or South Sudan. Controversy surrounds who will be eligible to vote in the referendum – the Misseriya ethnic group are nomadic, spending part of the year in the Abyei area; their allegiance lies with north Sudan. The Dinka Ngok of Abyei are aligned with South Sudan and do not want the Misseriya to be included in the vote.

On the 9 July the Republic of South Sudan will officially declare its independence from the Republic of Sudan. This is a result of the plebiscite in January 2011 in which the South Sudanese voted overwhelmingly in favour of secession from the north. The right to this vote was a stipulation of the CPA, which was signed in 2005, ending more than two decades of civil war between north and South Sudan.

Sudanese Interior Minister, Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamad, said “The SPLM brought its component from the joint forces, but when the (northern) Sudanese Armed Forces brought its components it was attacked,”with regards to an incident which resulted in the death of 11 soldiers on 1 May in the Todach region of Abyei, suggesting it was the result of an ambush on northern Sudanese elements of the JIU. Changath’s evidence appear to contradict these claims.

The Abyei Protocol, which defines the special status of the region, states that neither the SAF nor the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) can operate in the Abyei area.

As well as the Todach incident, two hours earlier a policeman was killed in Tajalei, also in Abyei. Eyewitnesses claim that this attack was carried out by the same forces. This has not been explained by the north’s National Congress Party (NCP) or investigated by the UN.

Prior to the attacks senior local SPLM sources say that the SAF deputy JIU commander told his senior, the SPLA commander, who was on a trip to Wau, so unable to verify events on the ground, that nine JIU soldiers were on their way to Abyei, and requested a SPLA officer to escort them through Todach. The commander sent the officer, but on checking with Abyei authorities discovered no authorisation had been given to enter Abyei town. A security point at Todach was subsequently reinforced, and forces posing as JIU were asked to provide documentation showing they were JIUs or had permission to enter Abyei town. Suspicions were already high as the numbers of soldiers vastly exceeded the 9 that the SAF Deputy JIU commander had described, and not all were wearing JIU uniforms. Unable to provide any documentation, SAF soldiers started shooting.

International analysts fear Abyei is on a knife-edge in the run up to the birth of a new nation on 9 July: Maker and Ngoong in the north-west of Abyei could be attacked by Popular Defence Force (PDF) using horsemen; north-central areas could be attacked using SAF and the petroleum protection forces of the oil producing town, Diffra; and north-east areas by rebels.

Any agreement to demilitarize the area is unlikely to be followed through in the case of PDF, and JIUs are unlikely to have the capacity or ability to monitor the north-west and north-east areas.

The PDF is a government paramilitary group under the command of the general army working in both civil and military aspects of defence. It mobilizes militias across Sudan and acts as a useful safety net against the coup-prone military.

As the official deceleration of the statehood of the Republic of South Sudan is imminent the tension in Abyei is reaching breaking point. North Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir on 27 April said “Abyei is part of north Sudan and will remain of the north”. It was confirmed on 13 May that the draft transitional constitution of South Sudan will controversially include Abyei.

This incident is likely to be a prelude to wider conflict in July. As it seems that no political agreement will be reached on the status of Abyei, an attempt by local residents to define themselves as part of the South upon its independence is likely to be disrupted by a Northern military occupation of Abyei, just as Southern claims in a draft constitution that Abyei is part of the South were followed by this botched attempt.

The South are likely to respond in kind, whatever international pressure not to defend Southerners living in Abyei, in part to avoid a mutiny by SPLA senior officers with personal ties to the region. The results of initial military engagement and the response by the international community will determine the eventual outcome. The North is unlikely to risk full-scale war if it thinks the international community will not force the South to back down.

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