Fighting In Sudan's Disputed Abyei Region Persists

Recent fighting in Sudan threatens to unravel efforts at a lasting peace. The flashpoint is the disputed border region of Abyei. U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, talks to Renee Montgne about why both north and south Sudan claim Abyei.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Before the horrors of Darfur, Sudan was notorious for another story: A long and bloody civil war between North and South that killed an estimated two million people. The deaths were mostly the result of brutal tactics by forces under Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir. That 20-year long civil war ended with a peace deal in 2005. And earlier this year, there was jubilation in the South as it voted for independence, set to take place this summer.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

That vote was painful for the North. Most of Sudan's oil is produced in the South. And recent fighting threatens to unravel peace efforts. The flashpoint is the disputed border region of Abyei.

MONTAGNE: There has been fighting in Abyei for months. Then, last week, Southern Sudanese forces killed some Northern troops there. In response, Northern forces seized and now occupy the entire region.

Amid concerns that a new civil war is in the offing, Washington is dispatching the U.S. special envoy to Sudan. Princeton Lyman told us he'll try to get the two sides talking again, about Abyei.

Mr. PRINCETON LYMAN (U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan): Abyei is a very small part of the Sudan, but it is one in which each side is very heavily invested, emotionally and politically. It has long been in dispute, between the north and the south, as to where Abyei should be.

MONTAGNE: Why is it especially valuable to the north and the south?

Mr. LYMAN: Too often people call it an oil-rich area. It is not. There is an oil production from Abyei, but it's not very significant. The issue is really political and emotional. For example, the Ngok Dinka, who feel that Abyei is their traditional homeland, feel very strongly, that Abyei should become part of the south. And within the government of the south, the Ngok Dinka are very important politically and this is a very important issue to them.

On the other side, the Misseriya, who are a nomadic group, are a very important constituency to President Bashir. They fought on his side in the civil war against the south and he has promised them that they would continue, not only to have grazing rights in Abyei, but that they would have political rights in Abyei, and that it would stay in the north. So it has become an important area because of important constituencies on each side, that care deeply about this region.

MONTAGNE: So, now that the north is effectively occupying Abyei, and it is the north includes the capital and the government, which has been blamed for countless deaths and much destruction in the region of Darfur and at the time seemed pretty immune from international pressure, what kind of leverage does the U.S. have in this region Abyei, in terms of trying to get the north out?

Mr. LYMAN: Right now the government in Khartoum is angry, and they're using their military advantage in Abyei to insist they will not withdrawal until, in fact, the issue is solved, more or less in their favor. But what this does for Khartoum, is delay for them, what is really important, and that is for them to come out of international isolation.

We have a roadmap with Sudan, for normalization of relations, that would entail having them come out from under the list of being on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, for supporting debt relief, and for opening them up to access to international financial resources, none of which they have today. So, in the long run, this is not helping Khartoum.

MONTAGNE: So is that what you are going to say to the government in Khartoum, although diplomatically, I presume? That if you want to get off this terrorism list and reap the benefits of getting off this list, you better get out of Abyei.

Mr. LYMAN: Well, of course, because this is part of the roadmap we've discussed with the government. It's not new. So we have said to them, look, this puts in jeopardy, completing the process of normalization. So sure, we have said that to them and we will continue to say that to them, even while we recognize what touched off this crisis, et cetera.

MONTAGNE: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.

Mr. LYMAN: You're welcome, glad to be here.

MONTAGNE: Princeton Lyman, speaking to us from the State Department

. He is - from the State Department. He is the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, heading this weekend to the capital, Khartoum.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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