KHARTOUM, May 21 (Reuters) – South Sudan said northern forces had attacked villages in the Abyei border region for a second day on Saturday after both sides accused each other of staging violence in the contested area.

Southerners voted in January to become independent on July 9 but the oil-producing Abyei region has emerged as an obstacle to a peaceful split as both sides have built up forces there, the United Nations has said.

The southern army (SPLA) said northern forces had attacked SPLA forces in at least four villages, among them Todach and Tagalei, which it said had been already hit on Friday.

“At least four villages were bombed by air. It happened just now as we speak,” said SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer. “I don’t know casualty figures yet.”

The northern army could not be reached for comment, while a spokesman for the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) said he could not verify the report.

Late on Thursday, the north accused the SPLA of attacking a convoy of Sudanese soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers in Dokura north of Abyei town.

The SPLA denied responsibility for the attack, which the United Nations said had taken place on a convoy of northern troops escorted by U.N. peacekeepers under a deal for both sides to withdraw forces from the disputed territory.

The North and South are supposed to have withdrawn all of their forces from Abyei by this week except for a special joint force made up of units from both sides.

The mainly Muslim North and the South, where most people are Christian or hold traditional beliefs, fought for decades in a civil war that killed an estimated 2 million people.

The war was ended by a 2005 peace deal that led to the referendum on southern independence, but the sides continue to clash over Abyei, which also contains fertile grazing land.

Earlier this month, at least 14 people were killed in clashes between northern and southern forces in Abyei. Both sides blamed each other for starting the violence.

Last month, Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said he would not recognise the South’s independence unless it gave up a claim on Abyei made in the south’s draft constitution.

Abyei residents were also meant to have a referendum in January over whether to join the north or south. Disputes over who could vote derailed that ballot and talks over the status of the region have stalled.

North and south have also yet to agree how to share oil revenues and other assets prior to the secession.

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