|A senior minister in Omar al-Bashir's national unity cabinet resigned, characterising the violence in Abyei as 'a war crime' that has resulted in 15,000 people displaced from their homes [EPA]
Escalating violence in Abyei, the largest of several towns in the disputed border area between North and South Sudan, has displaced thousands of people and, according to US officials, is threatening the viability of both the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and the soon-to-be independence of Southern Sudan, set for July 9, as the potential for civil war between the two sides grows.
After soldiers from the South's Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) ambushed a UN convoy travelling through Abyei on May 19, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), under orders from the Northern capital of Khartoum, attacked and occupied towns throughout the territory in an apparent response to the SPLA assault.
"We feel that the attack on the UN convoy was deplorable and wrong, but we feel that the response of the [Khartoum] government was disproportionate and irresponsible. We think [SAF] forces should be withdrawn," Princeton Lyman, the US Special Envoy to Sudan, said on May 24.
Oxfam, a human rights group, reports that more people have been killed in Sudan in the first months of 2011 than in all of 2010.
According to official estimates from the Sudanese government, 70 SAF soldiers have been killed, a number the UN has contested.
As the official date approaches for Southern Sudan's independence, which was decided in a January referendum, a number of issues, including the distribution of oil revenues, and the demarcation of a remaining 20 per cent of the 2,100km border between the North and South, remain unresolved.
Lyman emphasised that the continued "occupation" of Abyei is a violation of the CPA, and thus poses a risk to the plan for full normalisation of Sudanese relations with the US, an arrangement that would include inducements - such as removing Sudan from the US' "State Sponsors of Terrorism" list, and debt relief of up to $38bn - for a peaceful transition of the largest country on the African continent into two independent nations.
"If there is no cost to the Khartoum regime's commission of atrocities and to the dishonouring of agreements, then why would anything change in Sudan?" John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, an advocacy group, asked in a statement on Monday.
"Darfur is deteriorating, Abyei is a war zone, and pockets of the South have been set aflame by Khartoum-supported militias. It is time to impose serious consequences for the Khartoum regime's use of overwhelming military force to deal with every challenge it faces," Prendergast added.
In a possible sign of Southern government officials' willingness to negotiate a peace deal over Abyei, Luka Biong Deng, a senior Southern minister in Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's national unity cabinet, resigned after characterising the violence in Abyei as "war crimes" that have resulted in 15,000 displaced persons, according to the UN.
Since the CPA's inception, control over Abyei has been a bitter point of contention between the North and South mainly due to its importance as a critical water source - the Kiir River provides priceless sustenance for crops during the dry season - and its once-vast oil reserves in areas bordering the town.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling in 2009 on Abyei's borders reaffirmed the claim of the Ngok Dinka - an ethnic group loyal to the South - over the majority of the town, essentially guaranteeing that any referendum held on the determination of Abeyi's allegiance would be in favour of South Sudan.
A referendum, originally planned to coincide with the national referendum in January, on the self-determination of Abyei has yet to be held, while the terms of the court's ruling - which were widely accepted at the time by all parties involved - left the Misseriya, an ethnic group of Arab descent loyal to the Khartoum government, and the North, to defend their own claims to the disputed territory.
But some analysts argue that Northern control over Abyei serves more as a point for the Khartoum government's political leverage in the South's secession, particularly given remaining US sanctions on Khartoum's government, and the already decrepit state of the North's economy as it prepares to take even larger losses in oil revenues once the South secedes.
"Abyei itself has become the defining issue in north-south relations and the defining issue in answering the question of whether Khartoum will allow for the peaceful secession of the south or not," Dr Eric Reeves, a regional specialist, said. "Khartoum is now obviously making it look as if the SPLA is the provocateur."
Since the national referendum in January, numerous reports have documented the North's buildup of an offensive military capability on their southern border, making discussions over not insignificant issues - such as who should be counted as residents of Abyei - seemingly irrelevant in the face of what amounted to premature preparation for armed conflict.
Whether Southern officials will approach the SAF's occupation of Abyei with a measured political response as they have in past conflicts, or with calls for an armed response in kind, remains to be seen.
"One pole would argue that as goes Abyei so go we, we will fight if Khartoum attacks Abyei, now we're still waiting to see what the SPLA military response will be... [T]hey have so far understood that restraint will be the best response," Reeves added.
Since President Obama took office in 2009, US policy has officially centred around three pillars - the genocide in Darfur, implementation of the CPA, and the mitigation of the threat from terrorist organisations operating in Sudan.
But the violence in Abyei is testing the resolve of US diplomats in securing peaceful negotiations before the July 9 deadline and whether the advantages of normalisation will be enough incentive, or if measures that penalise the aggressive behaviour are necessary.
"The US has been excessively cautious. We should be creating a timeline in Khartoum's mind for a withdrawal…and say if this is going to be a negotiated issue, that every day Khartoum stays in Abyei there will be a further postponement in removing them from the list of state sponsors of terrorism," Reeves said.
A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.