The Sudanese president Omer Hassan al-Bashir has reportedly agreed to withdraw his forces from the contested region of Abyei during a summit in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
"President Bashir has agreed to pull his troops out before July 9 with Ethiopia sending two battalions as peacekeepers. They will be deployed under the U.N. flag," one diplomat told Reuters. A second diplomat confirmed Bashir had agreed to the troop withdrawal and the deployment of Ethiopian peacekeepers.
The report if confirmed would mark a breakthrough despite earlier statements by the Sudanese leader and other officials vowing to never withdraw from Abyei. "Abyei is Sudanese land, a Northern land [and] we will not withdraw from it," Bashir addressed a meeting of educational workers and vocational teachers in Khartoum in late May after the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) took over the North-South border area.
SAF entered the oil-rich district on May 21st in retaliation for an ambush near Abyei blamed on the Sudan people Liberation Army (SPLA) which is the official army in the South. The Northern army convoy that came under attack was escorted by peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). Khartoum said that 197 soldiers were either killed or are missing in the aftermath though the UN suggested the figure is exaggerated.
Mandoor al-Mahdi, a senior official with the National Congress Party (NCP) in the North, stressed that the issue of Abyei can only be resolved through a political solution or allowing the Arab Misseriya tribe to participate in the long awaited referendum. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) promised Abyei residents their own referendum in January 2011 over whether to join north or south, but that did not take place as neither the NCP nor the SPLM could agree who was qualified to vote. The Misseriya ethnic group are nomadic, spending part of the year in the Abyei area; their allegiance lies with north Sudan. The Dinka Ngok of Abyei are aligned with South Sudan and do not want the Misseriya to be included in the vote.
Al-Mahdi said that the military situation that now exists in Abyei and Southern Kordofan is "temporary" and will not continue for a long time pending an agreement with the SPLM. South Kordofan has witnessed bloody clashes between SAF and SPLA which led to unspecified number of casualties of as many as 75,000 people according to the United Nations.
In response to these events the African Union (AU) called for a meeting in Addis Ababa between Bashir and South Sudan president Salva Kiir in a bid to defuse the tensions and reverse the escalation. The proposal's main point is withdrawing SAF from Abyei and replacing it with Ethiopian troops. "The [Ethiopian] unit has already been identified and is only waiting for a green light from the U.N. Security Council," the diplomat, who asked not to be named, added to Reuters.
The government spokesperson Rabie Abdel-Aati told New York Times (NYT) last month that Khartoum does not want any foreign troops in Abyei. "We will not accept this," he said in response to question about the Ethiopian troops proposal. "Maybe this is something under discussion. There have been many discussions, but no decision has been made."
The international community is concerned that military confrontation on the border may derail the peaceful divorce between the North and South which will be official next month.