NAIROBI, Kenya — Southern Sudan condemned as an "act of war" the occupation of the disputed town of Abyei by northern troops, a move that threatens to return the country to civil war just seven weeks before the South is due to celebrate its independence.
On Monday United Nations officials said the town was on fire and that northern gunmen were looting homes and shops. Most of the town’s 20,000 residents had already fled the invasion by President Omar al-Bashir’s tanks and troops over the weekend.
In Agok, 25 miles south of Abyei, medical aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has so far received 47 casualties at its field hospital. Agok is usually the backstop when heavy fighting breaks out in Abyei, as it did in 2008, but civilians were continuing their flight southward.
“Most of the civilian population has already moved out of Abyei and they are continuing to move south from Agok,” said Gustavo Fernandez, Sudan program manager at MSF.
The invasion by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) is the latest outbreak of violence since a North-South peace deal signed in 2005 that ended 22 years of civil war in which 2 million died.
Analysts and activists have warned that Abyei could be the spark that reignites war in Sudan. Hollywood actor and Sudan activist George Clooney set up the Satellite Sentinel program with Enough Project co-founder John Prendergast to keep track of troop movements on the ground.
"Through the satellite project and on-the-ground assessments, we knew that there was a massing of troop strength on both sides and a concentration of tanks and air power on the northern side,” Prendergast told GlobalPost. “All the pieces were in place for a conflagration.”
He said it was time for the U.S. and others “to impose serious consequences” on Bashir and Khartoum. “Darfur is deteriorating, Abyei is a war zone, and pockets of the South have been set aflame by Khartoum-supported militias,” he said of recent events in the country.
Tensions have escalated since January’s vote with tit-for-tat attacks launched by both sides. Earlier this month four U.N. peacekeepers were shot dead in an ambush by unkown gunmen outside Abyei town.
Last week southern gunmen attacked a U.N. convoy as it escorted 200 northern soldiers through Abyei. The U.N. condemned the attack as “a criminal act” and Bashir says the subsequent occupation of Abyei was in retaliation for the alleged killing of 22 of its soldiers in the ambush.
The military response was overwhelming. Aerial bombardments and artillery shelling (during which at least one mortar landed in a U.N. compound, although no one was hurt) were followed by a full-scale invasion.
“The Sudanese armed forces control Abyei and are cleansing it of illegal forces,” said Amin Hassan Omar, state minister for presidential affairs in Khartoum.
In Juba the southern army spokesman denied responsibility for the latest escalation. “We didn't declare war. The National Congress Party and the Sudan Armed Forces declared war on us,” said Col. Philip Aguer.
Southern Sudan’s information minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, called the occupation of Abyei “an illegal invasion” endangering thousands of lives.
The U.S. and Britain, both key brokers of the 2005 peace deal, condemned the recent days’ fighting and demanded all troops withdraw.
Under the terms of that deal, Abyei and its oil fields were to have voted with the rest of the South in a referendum on self-determination in January.
Abyei was left out of the process after the National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Juba failed to agree on whether northern-aligned Misseriya nomads were eligible to vote in a region settled by predominately southern Ngok Dinka farmers.
The White House said it “deplored” the southern attack on the U.N. convoy last week and “condemns the offensive operations” by the northern army which it said were “disproportionate and irresponsible.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon demanded an end to the fighting but all pleas have so fallen on deaf ears as Khartoum insisted it would hold Abyei.
Speaking to GlobalPost, Prendergast slammed the White House’s response to this latest crisis calling it “an historic stretch of moral equivalence” to talk of last week’s ambush and the invasion of Abyei in the same breath.
“It is time to impose serious consequences for the Khartoum regime's use of overwhelming military force to deal with every challenge it faces. We don't stand for it in Libya, Iran or Syria," said Prendergast. "Why then do these atrocities go unchallenged in Sudan?"