UN Dismisses Reports of Troop Buildup in Contested Region of Sudan

19 October 2010

A representative from the U.N. Mission in Sudan has dismissed reports that extra troops would be sent to the Abyei region in advance of the tense vote.

Responding to recent reports the United Nations planned to deploy an additional 100 troops in the volatile Abyei region, the U.N. Mission in Sudan spokesman Ashraf Eissa told VOA there has been no decision made regarding deployment for the referendum.

On Monday, after the top U.N. diplomat in Sudan Haile Menkerios said reserves had been sent to Abyei, it was reported 100 U.N. peacekeepers would be deployed to the region to diffuse tensions.

But Eissa said there had been confusion regarding Menkerios' statement. "The fact of the matter is that we had, at the end of September, a routine exercise in the form of a long-range patrol called Operation Swift Shield which at that time we informed the media about. There has been some of these troops who are still there getting ready to move on to other parts of Sudan as part of our routine operations testing the U.N. peacekeeping force ability to respond to the requirements of the referenda," he said.

Eissa said the reserve troops had not been deployed in response to any new developments, but as part of a test of the U.N. rapid deployment capabilities.

A Sudan Researcher for the International Crisis Group, Zach Vertin, confirmed to VOA that no decision had been made on troop deployment, but said talks were ongoing and troops could possibly be deployed in Abyei in advance of the vote.

Tensions are mounting as stalled negotiations have delayed preparations for the vote to decide whether the residents remain part of the north or possibly join a newly independent south.

Representatives from the north and south have yet to agree on Abyei's borders or eligibility requirements for the January 9 vote.

Khartoum has drawn sharp criticism from southern officials after a ruling party official last week said a delay was inevitable. The Sudanese Defense Minister said the vote should be delayed due to the "reality on the ground."

UNMIS spokesman Eissa would not confirm whether there were contingency plans to deal with unrest stemming from a delay. "As far as the United Nations Mission in Sudan is concerned, we are working towards the deadline of 9th of January 2011. We continue to work against this deadline. All our technical assistance and logistical support to the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission are on that basis," Erissa states.

Abyei's vote is scheduled to be held alongside a referendum in southern Sudan on secession from the north. In 2009, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled on Abyei's borders, but the parties have yet to comply with the verdict. The region, which lies on the border of North and South Sudan, contains vast deposits of oil and was a major point of contention during the Sudanese civil war which ended in 2005.