, KHARTOUM, Jan 9 – Unknown gunmen killed a number of civilians in Sudan\’s disputed Abyei border region on Saturday, just hours before a referendum on southern independence, Abyei\’s chief administrator said.
"A group of unidentified gunmen attacked civilians in the Makeir area. Several civilians were killed," said Deng Arop Kuol.
"A number of civilians were killed but we don\’t know how many," he told AFP, adding that fighting had also taken place about 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Abyei town on Friday.
Mukhtar Babo Nimir, top chief of the Misseriya Arab tribe, confirmed there had been deadly violence.
"Yesterday an SPLA (Sudan People\’s Liberation Army) group attacked Misseriya nomads and clashed with them. Our people killed one of them and they killed one of ours," he said.
"Today I have information that there was a clash 20 kilometres north of Abyei, but I don\’t have more details," he added.
Nimir was speaking to AFP by telephone from Muglad, the Misseriya\’s heartland, near Abyei, where members of the tribe are due to hold a large gathering on Monday, according to local reports.
The flashpoint Abyei region, with some of Sudan\’s biggest oilfields nearby, has long been a source of north-south tension between north and south Sudan.
The two sides are at loggerheads over whether it will eventually join the south if it chooses to secede in the referendum that begins on Sunday.
Some 3.9 million southerners have registered to vote in the referendum, which is a key plank of the 2005 peace agreement (CPA) that ended a 22-year north-south civil war in which around two million people were killed.
The accord also stipulated that the Abyei region should hold a simultaneous referendum on whether to remain a part of the north or join a potentially independent south.
But that vote has been postponed indefinitely, with neither side able to agree on who should be eligible to vote.
Threats by leaders of the district\’s settled pro-southern Ngok Dinka population to take unilateral action over the poll delay have sparked fears of clashes with heavily armed Misseriya Arabs from the north who use its waters for seasonal pasture.