Sudan rivals trade accusations after Abyei shooting

JUBA - Sudan’s two armies traded angry accusations on Friday after peacekeepers and northern soldiers were reported wounded in the tense Abyei district on the north-south border.
Shooting broke out late on Thursday as peacekeepers from the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) escorted northern troops out of the contested area, the latest outbreak of fighting in the impoverished but oil-producing district.
Deadly fighting and recriminations have flared in Abyei since January, when the district had been due to vote on its future, alongside a referendum in the south that delivered a landslide for secession.
The plebiscite was postponed indefinitely amid deadlock between north and south over who should be eligible to vote.
A spokesman for the north's Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), Sawarmi Khaled Saad accused the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of attacking its troops.
"Our forces and UN troops came under attack by the SPLA in Abyei area," Saad said, in a statement on Khartoum’s official SUNA news agency.
"There are substantial losses," he added.
But the SPLA denied responsibility.
"As the SAF were withdrawing their troops, there was firing," said SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer.
"From the reports we have, the shooting was started by the SAF firing on the police, and there was firing in return," Aguer added.
He could not confirm casualty details.
The United Nations strongly condemned the "criminal attack" against its convoy.
It said that its peacekeepers had been accompanying 200 SAF troops within a north-south joint military unit, as part of an agreement to pull troops out the area.
"This act constitutes a serious breach of previous agreements made between the two parties," it said in a statement released on Friday.
"UNMIS calls on the parties to immediately investigate the incident and take appropriate action against the perpetrators of this deliberate attack."
The shooting took place at Dokura in an area controlled by the southern police, some 10 kilometres (six miles) north of Abyei town, the statement added without providing details of any casualties.
Only special joint north-south units are allowed into Abyei, but recent satellite imagery showed that both sides have built up forces in the area.
However, both sides have agreed to keep their troops outside the district as part of efforts to restore calm.
Aguer said there were no SPLA troops in the area.
"SAF are looking for a pretext to fight and take Abyei," said Aguer. "There were no SPLA forces in the Abyei region."
Abyei's future is the most sensitive of a raft of issues that the two sides are struggling to reach agreement on before the south is recognised as an independent state in July.