Recent clashes between the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) army and fighters from the mainly Arab Miserriya community have displaced hundreds of civilians from their homes and raised tension across Abyei, the governor of the region lying between the north and South Sudan, said.
"I have received reports of fresh attacks, four days after the 16 March attacks [in which] our men, the SPLA [Southern People’s Liberation Army], exchanged fire with the Miserriya 20km east of the Heglig oil field," Edward Lino, the SPLM-appointed governor, said in Juba on 23 March.
The latest clashes occurred on 20 March, barely three weeks after 70 people were killed in Al-Mayram township - an incident over which the two sides traded accusations. Another 75 people were killed in violent skirmishes in December 2007 and January 2008.
Lino attributed the escalating tensions between the Miserriya and SPLM troops to the delay by the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and southern leaders in reaching a consensus on the demarcation of borders in the oil-rich Abyei region.
Local leaders in Abyei, however, accused the SPLM troops of crossing into northern villages and harassing civilians in villages like Makaire and Al-Na'ama as well as Luo in eastern Abyei.
Bishta Mohammad Salem, chairman of the committee on tribal reconciliation between the Miserriya and Dinka, said SPLM forces were present in the north and east of Abyei. The forces, he said, were harassing non-Dinka populations and undermining co-existence among communities in Abyei.
Denying the presence of SPLM troops in northern Abyei, Lino demanded the immediate disarmament of the Miserriya. "Who are the Miserriya? Where do they get tankers from? Who finances them and why do they operate with the utmost impunity?" he asked.
On 23 March, Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit accused the NCP of using the Miserriya to try and push the border boundaries further south.
"Some people would want to use the Abyei dispute to trigger war in Sudan. Let them be told that Southerners will not provoke anyone but we deserve the right to defend ourselves if need arises," he said in an Easter message.
The SPLM would remain vigilant against any attempts to frustrate it in Abyei, Kiir said, calling on the Southern Sudanese to be wary of schemes to return the country to war.
In January 2005 the SPLM signed a historic peace deal with the NCP to end more than two decades of war in the south. The parties later signed the Abyei protocol, but the region has experienced an administrative and political vacuum after disagreements over its status.
SPLM leaders say the NCP has ignored its proposals over Abyei because of oil revenues - estimated at US$529 million in 2007. The government in Khartoum denies the claims.
Addressing an SPLM convention in Juba on 16 March, Kiir warned that fresh fighting could resume in Abyei following a souring of relations between the Miserriya tribesmen and locals over cattle raids.
"I advise our people, the Ngok Dinka, to let the Miserriya nomads move south and graze their animals, but that does not mean that they occupy our land permanently and even attack our people through cattle raids. They must return to the north during the dry season," he said.
Lino said at least 200,000 people have been displaced by violence from Abyei, but only 60,000 had returned in the last three years. "We still have over 140,000 people displaced from Abyei [who see] insecurity as a reason not to return home," he told IRIN.
Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, special representative of the Secretary-General for Sudan, in a19 February report to the UN Security Council, warned that Abyei was a possible troublespot from which conflict could resume.
Abyei had emerged as "the biggest stumbling block between the two partners," he said.