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A split ruling in Sudan's north-south border dispute

An international panel gives lucrative oil fields in the Abyei region to the Khartoum-based government in the north. The south gets key tribal lands.

July 23, 2009|Edmund Sanders

NAIROBI, KENYA — In a ruling many hope will bolster Sudan's fragile north-south peace agreement, an international arbitration panel Wednesday awarded the northern-led government control of several key disputed oil fields while giving large swaths of contested grazing lands to the south.

The split decision regarding the flash-point region of Abyei was seen as a boost to the 2005 U.S.-brokered peace treaty between the Khartoum-based regime and former southern rebels in the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, or SPLM.

Despite reaching a cease-fire and agreeing to form a power-sharing government, northern and southern troops fought briefly last year as a result of unresolved questions about who would control oil-rich Abyei along the north-south border. Many worried that the border dispute would reignite Sudan's 21-year north-south civil war.

Officials in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, characterized the panel's decision as a victory. The government had rejected a previous panel's ruling that the oil fields lay in the disputed area. The sides agreed last year to have the matter settled by the new, five-member panel at the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration.

SPLM officials expressed disappointment, but pledged to uphold the ruling.

"The court didn't give [us] all our rights, but we respect it," said Arop Moyak, chief SPLM administrator in Abyei.

Under the decision, the lucrative Heglig oil fields, partly owned by the Sudanese government, will remain part of the north. Most of Sudan's other known oil reserves are in the south. Analysts said the decision probably would appease northerners, who had been worried that they would be left without oil in the event that southerners vote for independence in a 2011 referendum.

Southerners, meanwhile, won control of key tribal lands and will be able to begin resolving a demarcation battle that has been a major obstacle to implementing the 2005 treaty.

"Both sides can claim they got something and maybe now they can move on," said a U.S. official in Washington who was not authorized to speak publicly about the dispute.

Analysts said the key test of the ruling would take place as the two sides move to implement the decision. Troops from both sides have been stationed in and around the area, as are United Nations peacekeepers. Some northern-leaning tribes, which might be displaced by the ruling, already are threatening to reject the decision.

Mohammed Omer Alansari, a Messeriya tribal chief allied with the north, accused the government of abandoning his community and not doing enough to protect his tribe's land, which he said would now be part of the Abyei region. Abyei residents will vote in 2011 on whether they want to align with the north or south.

"The government only wanted the oil," he said. "They didn't really care about the benefit of the people."

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edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Special correspondent Alsanosi Ahmed in Khartoum contributed to this report.

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