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South Sudan says 80,000 flee after north takes oil-rich Abyei

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Alel Bol fled with four of her six children when armed northerners on motorbikes roared into her home in Sudan’s contested Abyei border region and, she said, bombs started falling from the sky.

On Friday, she was still waiting for news of the other two children as she and tens of thousands of her compatriots took refuge in villages inside south Sudan, many sleeping on the bare earth under trees, plastic sheets and torn tent fabric.

About 80,000 people have fled since the north Sudanese armed forces seized oil-producing Abyei almost a week ago, a southern official said, doubling previous estimates of the displaced, according to Reuters.

“I saw the attackers ... I saw their guns. They were even bombing from the sky,” Ms. Bol said beneath the baking sun in Turalei, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) away from Abyei town. “I made it here with four of my children, but two are missing.”

Both Sudan’s mostly Muslim north, and the south, where most follow Christian and traditional beliefs, claim Abyei—a battleground in a north-south civil war that ended in 2005.

The north’s move last week sparked an international outcry and raised fears a land-grab could return Sudan to full-blown conflict, which could have a devastating impact on the region by sending refugees back across borders and creating a failed state in the south.

The attack came at a highly sensitive time for Sudan, just seven weeks before south Sudan is due to secede as an independent country, taking its oil reserves with it.

Southerners voted for independence in a January referendum agreed under the 2005 peace deal that ended the last civil war.

Thousands of men, women and children, many of them without possessions, crowded into Turalei in the south’s Twic county.

Many sought shade from the sun beneath trees while United Nations staff handed out sorghum and water. Local officials appealed to visitors for more help.

“The situation is going from worse to even worse,” Dominic Deng, commissioner of Twic county, told reporters in Turalei, according to Reuters. “They need food and water ... some people are dying.”

He said some 80,000 people had fled Abyei since the fighting started. The United Nations had previously put the number of refugees at up to 40,000.

Tensions mounted in the region last week after an attack on a convoy of northern soldiers and UN peacekeepers that was blamed on southern Sudanese forces.

Khartoum moved tanks into Abyei’s main town and has since defied calls from the United States, United Nations and south Sudan’s President Salva Kiir to withdraw, saying the land belongs to the north.

Mr. Kiir said on Thursday there would be no war over the incursion into Abyei and it would not derail independence. But the region remains one of the most contentious issues in the countdown to the split.

Entire villages have been emptied after widespread looting and shooting broke out following the advance of northern armed forces into Abyei, international organizations say.

The United Nations, meanwhile, said Friday that it will send a representative to Sudan to assess the country’s human rights situation, including the consequences of recent clashes in Abyei.

Mohammed Chande Othman, the UN’s independent human rights expert, said in a statement that he “will focus in particular on the arrests and detentions in the north (and) the armed confrontations that have taken place between the (southern army) and armed militia groups.”

He added, according to Agence-France Presse that during his May 31 to June 8 visit he will assess “the ongoing conflict in Darfur and the deteriorating situation in Abyei.”

A Washington-based monitoring organization, Satellite Sentinal Project, said images and analysis indicated that the northern army and irregular forces earlier this week loaded vehicles with items apparently taken from homes.

“The irregular payloads apparently present on the vehicles heading away from Abyei town are consistent with the photographs and reports of people from northern Sudan looting items left behind by tens of thousands of civilians who have fled the town,” it said.

For all but 11 years since Sudan became independent in 1956, a civil war has been fought in the country of 42 million people, Africa’s largest by land mass. Abyei contributes more than a quarter of Sudan’s daily oil production of 480,000 barrels. Sudan’s proven crude oil reserves are nearly 2 billion barrels.

The south is important to the north because that’s where most of the country’s oil is produced. But refineries are in the north, as is the main pipeline carry oil for exports.

The Abyei Area covers 10,460 kilometers in the State of Northern Bahr al-Ghazal in South Sudan.

Abyei is contested between the regions Ngok Dinka people, who are settled in the area and consider themselves southerners, and Misseriya nomads who herd their cattle south in the dry season and are supported by the Khartoum government.

The region postponed a vote, originally scheduled for January, on whether to join the south or remain a special administrative region in the north because of disagreements on who was eligible to vote.

Abyei produces less than 2,500 barrels of oil a day, according to Sudan’s Oil Ministry.

Fighting in the area three years ago between the armies of northern and Southern Sudan killed 89 people and forced more than 90,000 people to flee their homes, according to the UN.

(Abeer Tayel, an editor at Al Arabiya, can be reached at: abeer.tayel@mbc.net)