, THE HAGUE, April 18 – The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague started hearing a dispute Saturday between north and south Sudan over the contested oil-rich Abyei region at the heart of a fragile peace pact.
"Everybody in Sudan has a vested interest in the outcome of this arbitration," Riek Machar Teny, deputy chairman of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) told the court on the first of six days of hearings.
The southern SPLM and the government in the north asked the court last year for "final and binding arbitration" on the issue.
This followed a pact concluded last June to end a dispute over Abyei and allow for the return of tens of thousands who had fled fighting there the month before.
The fighting had threatened a return to Sudan’s two-decade civil war, the longest in Africa, that claimed 1.5 million lives before ending with the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.
The deal offered the south a six-year transitional period of regional autonomy and participation in a unity government until a 2011 referendum on self-determination.
Abyei will hold also hold a referendum the same year on whether to retain its current special administrative status in the north, or join the south.
Unable to agree on the borders of the Abyei area as defined in the peace agreement, the government and SPLM set up a joint boundaries commission.
While the government rejected the 2005 outcome, the SPLM said the commission was correct in concluding that the Ngok Dinka ethnic group, affiliated to the south, had occupied the Abyei area since well before the turn of the 20th century.
"The (government’s) actions are an opportunistic effort to relitigate issues that have already been decided," the SPLM states in court filings.
But Dirdeiry Mohamed Ahmed, for the government, argued "there is not a shred of evidence to support the line of latitude" claimed by the SPLM.
The court should make a finding in three months.