Sudan’s president and southern Sudan’s leader said they would turn to international arbitrators to solve a bitter dispute over an oil-rich region that many fear could escalate into civil war.
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and Salva Kiir met to agree a package of measures to defuse the most recent clashes over the central Abyei territory that last month left at least 20 soldiers dead and drove tens of thousands from their homes.
But officials from Khartoum and the semi-autonomous south said they had still not resolved their long-standing disagreement over the final borders of region.
The leaders said yesterday they would give themselves a month to agree on the best global body to help them reach an agreement over the boundaries and other fundamental issues, the officials said.
The borders of Abyei were left undecided in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended two decades of north-south war and created a national coalition government between the northern National Congress Party (NCP) and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
At stake in Abyei is control over a large part of Sudan’s oil wealth – Abyei town is surrounded by lucrative oilfields connected by a key pipeline that runs through the disputed territory.
Last month, a local dispute escalated into sporadic and often heavy fighting between northern and southern troops in the town.
Bashir and Kiir, who is both president of South Sudan and first vice president of Sudan as a whole, yesterday agreed to set up an interim administration in the region, and to respect an interim border for Abyei ahead of the final arbitration, said officials.
Northern and Southern troops, who are still in a stand-off in the region, would be replaced by a new “joint integrated unit” made up of soldiers from both sides, they added.
The leaders had also decided to give the United Nations free access to the area to help displaced people return to their homes by 30 June at the latest, the officials said.
“It was an important and historical meeting,” Yasir Arman, the SPLM’s deputy secretary general told reporters after the discussions between the two leaders.
Arman said the new administration and border would follow the terms of the Abyei protocol, an interim agreement made at the time of the 2005 peace deal that each side accuses the other of ignoring.
The final arbitration cold take up to nine months to complete, said Arman.
Didiri Mohamed Ahmed, the lead northern official in charge of Abyei, said if the sides failed to agree on an international arbitrator after a month, they would turn to the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague to help them pick an organisation.
“We think what has taken place should revitalise all of the CPA (the Comprehensive Peace Agreement) and rejuvenate the efforts of the two parties,” he added.
A report by US campaign group Enough in January described Abyei as “Sudan’s Kashmir” that could spark another civil war if left unresolved. But South Sudan’s Minister of Energy John Luk Jok on Sunday insisted the south wanted to avoid conflict.
“No one wants to go to war. It’s the last thing we need in Sudan,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of the Asian Oil & Gas Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.