KHARTOUM: North and South Sudan’s armies Friday accused each other of launching attacks in the contested Abyei border region, marking an escalation of tensions in the countdown to the South’s independence in July.
South Sudan’s army accused the North of using tanks and artillery in attacks on four villages Friday.
North Sudan’s army was not immediately available for comment but earlier accused the South of ambushing Northern troops traveling in a convoy with U.N. peacekeepers Thursday.
South Sudan voted to become independent in a referendum in January agreed under a 2005 peace deal but tensions have built up in the oil-producing Abyei border region where both sides have built up forces.
The Southern army (SPLA) said Northern forces had attacked SPLA army and police forces in at least four villages Friday.
“They used shells, long-range artillery, even tanks,” said SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer. “We don’t know casualty figures yet. Shells were still falling this afternoon when I got the latest report.”
A spokesman for the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) earlier said artillery fights broke out in the area of Todach and Tagalei but later said he needed to confirm the report.
The fresh violence came after the North accused the SPLA of attacking a convoy of Sudanese soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers late Thursday in Dokura North of Abyei town.
“Abyei is now a war zone,” said Sadiq Amer, deputy head of Northern intelligence and security forces, adding that at least 22 soldiers had been killed in what he called an “aggression” of Southern forces against a convoy of around ten vehicles.
“The troops were ambushed without any warning,” he told reporters in the capital Khartoum.
The SPLA denied responsibility for the attack, which the U.N. said had taken place on a convoy of Northern troops escorted by U.N. peacekeepers under a deal for both sides to withdraw forces from the disputed territory.
UNMIS did not identify the attackers but said the ambush took place in Dokura, an area it said was controlled by Southern police forces. It said two Sudanese soldiers and one peacekeeper had been injured.
Under a deal to ease tension, the North and South agreed to withdraw all of their forces from Abyei except for a special joint force made up of units from both sides. The pullout was supposed to be completed this week.