South Sudan to drop Abyei claims from draft constitution as unauthorized forces start withdrawal

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May 8, 2011 (KHARTOUM) – South Sudan has pledged to strike claims to Abyei region off its draft constitution, an African Union-mandated panel announced on Sunday, as north and south Sudan together with the UN reached an agreement on a timeframe to withdraw all unauthorized forces from the hotly-contested region.

Tension recently flared up between north and South Sudan after the latter issued a draft constitution laying claims to Abyei, prompting northern official to threaten to break their earlier promises to recognize South Sudan independence which was gained via a referendum held in January as part of the 2005’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

Following a meeting with Sudan’s second Vice-President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha in Khartoum yesterday, the member of the AU High-Level Implementation Panel on Sudan (AUHIP) and former president of Burundi Pierre Buyoya told reporters that they had conveyed to Taha the pledges the panel had received from the Government of South Sudan not to take any unilateral measures regarding Abyei and drop claims to the region’s ownership from the south’s draft constitution.

Meanwhile, the Abyei Joint Technical Committee (AJTC), which was established on 13 April to oversee the implementation of the UN-moderated Kadugli Agreements signed between the parties to Abyei conflict, on Sunday held its first meeting in Kadugli town.

According to a press release by the United Nation Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), whose Force Commander Major General Moses Bisong Obi chairs the ATJC, the meeting had reached an agreement to withdraw all unauthorized forces from Abyei and beef up the deployment of the Joint Integrated Units (JIU), a CPA mechanism comprising even number of troops from north and south Sudan armies, in Abyei.

UNMIS further said that the withdrawal and deployment process had been scheduled to begin on Tuesday 10 May and be completed by 17 May. The AJTC is due to visit Abyei region today’s morning to assess the situation on the ground.

“I believe there has been a commitment from the parties and that has been reflected in the way the meeting went today,” Maj. Gen Obi said after the meeting. “There was good will from both sides and we hope to follow-up on this spirit,” he added.

UNMIS also said that the meeting had agreed that north and south Sudan would create conducive environment by de-escalating tensions and speaking to their respective communities on the ground regarding the implementation of the Kadugli Agreements, and ensuring freedom of access for UNMIS.

In a related context, the international guarantors of Sudan’s 2005 peace deal, which ended decades of civil war between the north and the south, have announced arrangements to hold emergency meetings bringing the sides of Abyei dispute together as well as the AU panel in Washington and Addis Ababa.

In a press conference in Khartoum on Sunday, the administrator the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Rajiv Shah, said that his country beside Norway and UK would convene a meeting during November in Washington to reach a settlement to Abyei issue.

Also on Abyei, the International Crisis Group on Sunday rang the alarm bell over the situation in the region.

In a conflict risk alert entitled “Sudan: Abyei at a Dangerous Tipping Point,” the Brussels-based think tank warned that dangerous tensions both on the ground and between the leaders of the National Congress Party (NCP) in North Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the south may lead to escalation of violent confrontation ahead of the south’s formal independence in July.

The ICG report noted that north and south Sudan armies have deployed forces in and around Abyei in breach of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and subsequent security arrangements.

“Further escalation and additional tit-for-tat deployments risk pushing Abyei beyond the tipping point, endangering lives and the fragile peace in Sudan,” the ICG warned.

The ICG put forward a raft of recommendations including emphasis on the withdrawal of unauthorized forces from Abyei and allowing UNMIS “unfettered access” to verify withdrawals.

“The danger of new conflict is real. Failure to halt the downward trend toward violence in Abyei could unravel the tenuous peace that has been strong enough to get through the Southern Sudan referendum, but it could also intensify proxy war in other parts of Sudan, which will continue to feed the adversarial North-South relationship that both sides have so well accommodated over the course of the CPA period,” ICG said.

The latest instance of violence in Abyei, where clashes recently escalated due to the onset of the migration season, occurred on mid-February when ten people were killed and several others sustained injuries as a result of violent confrontations between the Arab-nomadic Misseriya tribe and local police from south Sudan.