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New Civil War Feared in Sudan As Town Empties

In the contested town of Abyei, fighting between government soldiers and southern forces destroyed homes, schools and businesses. Each side blames the other, but both agree it could lead to a resumption of a north-south war.
In the contested town of Abyei, fighting between government soldiers and southern forces destroyed homes, schools and businesses. Each side blames the other, but both agree it could lead to a resumption of a north-south war. (By Stephanie Mccrummen -- The Washington Post)
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[Map: Abyei, Sudan]
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 26, 2008

ABYEI, Sudan -- This contested town along Sudan's volatile north-south border has been obliterated.

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In recent days its mud houses and thatched-roof markets, its schools, hospitals, offices and shops have been shot, shelled and burned to the ground, and late last week Sudanese government soldiers in green fatigues were still roaming the streets, looting satellite dishes, mattresses and cases of orange soda from the smoking ruins.

More than 100,000 people -- residents of Abyei and surrounding villages who only recently returned home after 20 years of war between the north and south -- are gone, chased away in the worst escalation of violence since the government and former southern rebels signed a 2005 peace deal.

Sudanese government officials blame southern forces for the destruction, but southern officials, U.N. officials, witnesses and people who fled say it was a systematic campaign by the Sudanese government to depopulate the oil-rich area and take it by force.

"The government wants the land," said Mary Barbor, who was among those who fled the town this month. "The government wants the land to belong to the north."

Officials on both sides agree on one point: that perhaps the most dreaded scenario in this conflicted East African country is beginning to unfold -- a resumption of the north-south civil war, which killed an estimated 2 million people, making it one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II.

"We are being forced to go to war," said Musa Malei, a local official with the Southern People's Liberation Movement, the political arm of the former southern rebel movement. "We are not desiring to go to war -- we have been forced to fight."

Analysts have long warned that if the civil war resumed, it would probably start in Abyei, whose boundaries remain one of the most explosive unresolved issues of the peace deal that ended Africa's longest-running civil war.

According to that deal, government and southern forces were to withdraw from the area once boundaries were determined by an independent commission. Abyei residents were to decide whether to join the north or the south in a 2011 referendum, when southerners are to vote on secession from the north.

But the agreement began to unravel almost from the start. The ruling party of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir rejected the commission's report, which was supposed to be binding, and both sides have kept forces in the Abyei area.

Now, southern officials are accusing Bashir of using a minor street scuffle this month as an excuse to unleash a brutal military campaign that they say is aimed at clearing the area of its pro-southern population ahead of the referendum.

Although fighting has subsided, a high-ranking Western diplomat in the region said the situation is so volatile that it could easily slip into what he called a "gates of hell" scenario: a renewed war drawing in rebels from the western Darfur region, along with neighboring Chad, Uganda and other countries, possibly even the United States, which invested heavily in the 2005 peace deal and has steadfastly backed the south with military training and other support. China, deeply invested in Sudanese oil, is also a factor.


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