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Sudan's north solidifies hold on oil-rich Abyei region

President Bashir dissolves a joint governing council, and thousands are forced to flee the area claimed by both north and south.

May 23, 2011|By Alsanosi Ahmed, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Khartoum, Sudan — Sudan's northern army seized control of a disputed, oil-rich region of central Sudan on Sunday, officials said, forcing thousands to flee and bringing the country to the brink of civil war.

After weeks of clashes between northern and southern forces in the Abyei region, President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir — who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in connection with genocide in the Darfur region — on Saturday dissolved a joint council governing Abyei, officials said. The northern army sent at least 15 tanks to take control of the area, according to the United Nations.

Northern government officials accused the military wing of the south's ruling party of ambushing northern troops Saturday, killing dozens.

"We will never pull our troops out of Abyei as long as they want to take over Abyei. They have started the assault on us," said Amin Hassan Omer, a state minister for presidential affairs. "The south has to know that the north is still governing the whole country because they haven't got their independence yet."

Control of the region remains a sticking point as the south prepares to secede in July after residents there voted to become independent in January. The conflict also manifests deeper cultural differences between Sudan's mostly Muslim north and the south, where most follow Christian or traditional beliefs.

Southern Sudanese leaders rejected accusations that they provoked Sunday's deployment by the north in Abyei.

"The north doesn't want peace with the south, and that is why we decided to have our country," said Atim Garang, a member of parliament representing the political wing of the southern army.

The latest violence was condemned by U.S., British and U.N. Security Council envoys visiting Sudan, who canceled a planned trip to Abyei.

"The members of the Security Council call upon the government of Sudan to halt its military operation and withdraw immediately from Abyei town and its environs," French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters in Khartoum, reading from a council statement.

The council also condemned an attack by southern Sudanese forces on a U.N. convoy in the region on Thursday.

The White House condemned the north's military operations in Abyei on Sunday as "disproportionate and irresponsible" and urged northern and southern leaders to meet and negotiate a settlement.

Northern politicians faulted Western officials for not condemning what they insisted were attacks by southern forces on their troops in Abyei.

"Now we act in self-defense, and they say take your troops out," said Qutbi Almahdi, the head of the political sector of the president's ruling party. "America always keeps silent when the southern government violates."

Ahmed is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Cairo contributed to this report.

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