JUBA: Militiamen backed by the Sudanese government are heading south to the flashpoint town Abyei as satellite images show troops, tanks and helicopters deploying, the UN said on Wednesday.
Heavily armed fighters of the nomadic Arab Misseriya tribe, key allies of the Khartoum government in the 1983-2005 civil war between north and south, were moving towards the soon-to-be-independent south, UN peacekeepers said.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting, the UN force added, calling on both sides to show restraint.
UN mission spokeswoman Hua Jiang said: “Militia that appear to be Misseriya are moving southwards. Abyei town is deserted of civilians.” Southern officials say that the pro-northern Misseriya, a cattle-herding people who traditionally move through Abyei each year with their animals for water and pasture, are now entering Abyei in large numbers.
Thousands of Abyei residents - mainly southern-supporting Dinka Ngok people - have fled across the border into the south, with houses set on fire and property looted in the northern-controlled areas, the officials say.
A monitoring group said satellite images indicated evidence of ‘war crimes’ committed by the northern army.
“These images provide supporting documentary evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Abyei,” said John Bradshaw, director of the Enough Project campaign group, part of the coalition backing the satellite work.
The Satellite Sentinel Project, which obtained and analysed the images, said they showed “evidence of attacks by armoured vehicles and the destruction of villages.” US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice warned of the “grave humanitarian consequences” of the seizure of Abyei town by Khartoum troops as she and other Security Council delegates held talks in the southern regional capital Juba on Tuesday.
Rice said there were “horrific reports of looting and burning.” Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir rejected calls to pull the troops out.
The UN’s Hua Jiang said four peacekeeping helicopters were fired on as they took off from their Abyei base on Tuesday.
The helicopters from the UN Mission in Sudan were not hit in the shooting, the spokeswoman said.
Bashir has given a “green light” to the north’s Sudan Armed Forces to “respond to any violations” by southern forces, the official SUNA news agency said late on Tuesday.
In a defiant speech in Khartoum, he scoffed at warnings from Washington to withdraw his forces or risk jeopardising lucrative US efforts to normalise ties.
“Sudan is not greedy for the carrot of America, and does not fear from its stick,” Bashir was quoted as saying.
Abyei, a fertile border district claimed by both north and south, was due to vote on its future in January alongside a referendum on independence for the south, which delivered a landslide for secession.
But Abyei’s plebiscite did not happen amid arguments as to who was eligible to vote. On Saturday, northern troops and tanks overran the district.
The southern government has demanded that northern troops withdraw immediately.
The Satellite Sentinel Project, which provided the images, was set up by Hollywood star and human rights activist George Clooney last year.
The north’s seizure of Abyei, in the run-up to the planned international recognition of southern independence in July, has been condemned by the world powers as a threat to peace in Sudan.
While Bashir said he wanted to extend a “hand of peace to the south,” he also repeated warnings that southerners in the north must leave after the region’s independence on July 9.
“The southerners in the north will be given a period to settle their conditions, and (then) all the southerners existing illegally in the north will be transported to the south,” Bashir said.
Violence in and around Abyei has driven up to 40,000 people from their homes, a senior UN official said, sharply raising initial estimates.
“Our initial estimates are that 30,000 to 40,000 people have been displaced,” said Lise Grande, who helps coordinate UN humanitarian efforts in the south.
“That includes some 10,000 people from Abyei area fleeing direct fighting and 25,000 more from the Agok area, just across the southern border, where people are leaving homes fearing future violence,” she said.
Abyei’s capture in the run-up to international recognition of southern independence in July has been condemned by the world powers as a threat to peace between north and south.