World

Sudan's Abyei dispute: 'Shots fired' at UN helicopters

  • 25 May 2011
  • From the section World
UN vehicle patrols in Abyei (24/05/11)
The UN says there has been widespread looting in Abyei since it was seized

Shots have been fired at UN helicopters in the disputed Sudanese region of Abyei, the UN says.

A UN spokesman told the BBC that 14 shots had been fired at four helicopters but none had been hit.

Tension is high in Abyei, which was seized by northern troops at the weekend - a move condemned by the UN Security Council.

The region is also claimed by South Sudan, which is due to become independent in July.

Analysts fear the the dispute could reignite the north-south conflict, in which some 1.5 million people were killed.

The status of Abyei was left undecided in the 2005 peace deal and a referendum, due in January, on whether the area should be part of the north or south has been postponed indefinitely.

Aid workers say some 40,000 people have fled the fighting around Abyei - mostly southerners, heading further south.

A southern official said many were in a "miserable situation".

The UN believes militiamen from the Misseriya ethnic group were responsible for shooting at the helicopters.

The Misseriya are northern nomads and one of two groups to claim Abyei, along with the southern Dinka Ngok people.

The two groups often clash as their herds of cattle look for water and pasture.

The Misseriya were armed by Khartoum and used to attack the south during the civil war.

The BBC's James Copnall in Khartoum says the Misseriya are also being blamed for what the UN calls "burning and looting" in Abyei.

Reports suggest many Misseriya have arrived in the town since the northern armed forces took control of it on Saturday.

A Misseriya leader, Sadig Babo Nimr, told the BBC the accusations were "fallacious nonsense" and "against logic".

Northern army primed

The Satellite Sentinel Project has released satellite images of burnt huts and says they provide evidence of war crimes.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay has said she has received reports that northern forces had been shelling and bombing civilian areas.

The United Nations and the US have called on the northern troops to withdraw from Abyei.

But President Omar al-Bashir said he would not withdraw troops from the region and insisted that the area belonged to the north.

He added that his army would respond to any possible "provocation" from the army of South Sudan.

Northern troops seized the territory after southern forces had ambushed a convoy of its forces in the area, killing 22 people.

Referring to US warnings that the seizure could jeopardise billions of dollars of possible debt relief and moves to drop sanctions, he said: "Sudan is not greedy for the carrot of America, and does not fear from its stick."

The US envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, has warned that the takeover of Abyei puts at risk moves to cancel billions of dollars worth of Sudan's debt.

He also said that Washington would find it difficult to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism unless troops were withdrawn from Abyei.

Under these sanctions Sudanese companies are banned from using US currency - a major obstacle to international trade.

The US has previously suggested that a peaceful transition to independence for the south and a negotiated solution to the separate conflict in Darfur could normalise relations.

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