Plan to hold a referendum in Abyei in January to decide whether it would belong to north or south failed [Al Jazeera]

The UN Security Council has called on the Khartoum government to withdraw its forces immediately from the Abyei region, a key area of dispute in the north-south division of Sudan next month.

There has been no agreement on which country the oil-producing region should belong to when south Sudan becomes independent on July 9, but the northern military seized it on May 21, sparking fears of a renewed civil war.

"The council demands that the government of Sudan withdraw immediately from the Abyei area," said a unanimous formal council statement read out at Friday's meeting of the 15-nation body by Gabon Ambassador Nelson Messone, this month's president.

The north's move into Abyei followed an attack the day before on northern troops and UN peacekeepers that the Security Council itself has said was carried out by southern forces. The council has already deplored that attack.

But in its statement on Friday, the council condemned Khartoum's continued maintenance of military control over Abyei, which it called a "serious violation" of north-south peace accords. The two parts of Sudan ended a 20-year civil war in 2005 and southerners voted for independence in January.

The council said that failure by Khartoum to comply with the 2005 peace deal could undermine benefits it was due to receive. However, it did not elaborate.

The council's statement was held up for several days by disagreements between member states over how toughly it should be worded, diplomats said.

'Ethnic cleansing'

The statement expressed concern over the sudden influx of Misseriya nomads from the north into Abyei town "that could force significant changes in the ethnic composition of the area," many of whose permanent residents are from the southern Dinka Ngok tribe.

"We want brotherly ties between the north and the south"

Omar al-Bashir,
Sudanese president

"The council condemns all unilateral actions meant to create facts on the ground that would prejudice the outcome of negotiations," it said.

Diplomats said that the original US draft had used the phrase "ethnic cleansing," but other council members argued that it might be overstating the case. The phrase was subsequently dropped from the final statement adopted by the council.

Disputes over who would be allowed to vote ruined a plan to hold a referendum in Abyei in January to decide whether it would belong to north or south.

The council called on both north and south to co-operate with the United Nations and the African Union to establish a "viable security arrangement" for Abyei, and said the territory's long-term future should be decided by negotiation.

It also said both sides would benefit from UN peacekeepers remaining in Abyei after July 9. The future of the UNMIS peacekeeping force in Sudan is currently in doubt, with the south open to them staying on its territory but the north, which claims ownership of Abyei, insisting they leave.

In a warning of follow-up unusual in such statements, the council said it would meet in the coming days to review how its demands had been implemented.

In Khartoum on Friday, president Omar al-Bashir struck a conciliatory tone towards the south, saying disputes could be solved by negotiations. "We want brotherly ties between the north and the south," he told politicians before the Security Council statement was issued.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies