Killings hike tension in Abyei area disputed by Sudans

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Tension and anger on Sunday gripped the Abyei region disputed by Sudan and South Sudan after the killing of a tribal chief and at least one peacekeeper, residents said, as the U.N. boosted security.

The Sudanese foreign ministry condemned the “isolated incident” which killed Kual Deng Majok, the top Ngok Dinka leader in Abyei.

Khartoum said members of the Misseriya tribe, the other dominant group in the area, also died in Saturday’s incident, along with three peacekeepers from the U.N. Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA).

The United Nations earlier said one Ethiopian peacekeeper died and two other Blue Helmets were seriously wounded in the “attack by a Misseriya assailant on a UNISFA convoy”.

The foreign ministry expressed hope that the killings will not affect improving relations with South Sudan, whose army spokesman also condemned the violence.

“It looks like Dinka are very angry,” one local resident told AFP.

He reported fire burning in Abyei’s town Centre, where Misseriya run small shops.

A curfew was in effect, with UNISFA setting up extra checkpoints trying to restrict movement and prevent gatherings, the resident said on condition of anonymity.

The resident, who is familiar with the incident, said five Misseriya died in Saturday’s skirmish.

“There is high tension and all sides are alert, ready for anything,” but no new fighting occurred on Sunday, Mohammed al-Ansari, a Misseriya chief in Abyei, told AFP.

The U.N. humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, said on Twitter that UNISFA was “expanding patrols with [the] aim of maintaining calm”.

But South Sudan’s army spokesman, Philip Aguer, said the killings show the 4,000-member UNISFA needs to be strengthened “so that it can provide full security”.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon urged both tribes and governments to “avoid any escalation of this unfortunate event,” a statement said.

Abyei’s status has not been resolved despite steps which Sudan and South Sudan have taken since March to normalize their relations in other areas, after months of intermittent clashes along their undemarcated frontier.

“The government of Sudan renews its commitment to all the agreements that have been signed with South Sudan,” Khartoum affirmed after Majok’s death.

Abyei’s status was the most sensitive issue left unsettled when South Sudan separated from Sudan in 2011.

The territory was to hold a referendum in January 2011 on whether it belonged with the north or South, but disagreement on who could vote stalled the ballot.

Majok was heading north from Abyei town with UNISFA when they were stopped by a group of Misseriya, a Misseriya leader said.

Despite negotiations, “a clash happened when a UNISFA soldier shot one of the Misseriya who was readying his weapon,” said the Misseriya chief who asked to remain anonymous.

Majok and his driver were killed in the ensuing clash, he said.

Dinka are a dominant tribe in South Sudan and made up the majority of Abyei’s permanent residents, but large numbers of nomadic Arab Misseriya have traditionally used the territory’s pasture and water sources for their cattle.

After Misseriya surrounded Majok’s convoy, negotiations continued “for a long time” until a Misseriya youth, shouting and armed with a weapon, climbed onto the roof of Majok’s car, said the Abyei resident familiar with the situation.

“At some point a bullet came from one side,” triggering an exchange of fire, he said.

Majok’s death is the most serious incident since Sudanese troops withdrew in May last year to end a year-long occupation that forced more than 100,000 people to flee Abyei towards South Sudan.

While Sudan and South Sudan have been implementing timetables set out in March for restoring relations, they have not met deadlines they also agreed upon to set up Abyei’s administrative structure, including a police service.