Sudan, May 27 – South Sudan President Salva Kiir Thursday ruled out a return to war with the north over Abyei, even as campaigners released pictures which they say show northern troops helping to loot the contested district they seized last week.
"We will not go back to war, it will not happen," said Kiir in his first public statement since the fighting erupted last week. "We are committed to peace."
Abyei\’s capture in the run-up to international recognition of southern independence in July has been condemned by the world powers as a threat to peace between north and south.
Analysts have feared the conflict could tip the two sides back to civil war, which ended in 2005 after more than two decades of bloodshed.
"We fought enough. We made peace," the southern leader said.
Kiir, who is also first vice president of all Sudan, called directly on President Omar al-Bashir to withdraw his troops.
"I am calling upon my president to pull out his forces from Abyei," Kiir said, labelling the conflict sparked by a shooting incident last Thursday "an over-reaction from my brother in the north."
Abyei, a fertile border district claimed by both north and south, was due to vote on its future in January alongside a referendum on independence for the south, which delivered a landslide for secession.
But Abyei\’s plebiscite did not happen amid arguments on voter eligibility.
On Saturday northern troops and tanks overran the contested area.
But Kiir reassured the people of Abyei — who the south believe should be part of their nation-to-be — that northern soldiers would leave.
"The people now occupying it (Abyei) are invaders and they will go out," he said.
He also warned Khartoum against any further violence.
"If President Bashir and his army want to continue invading parts of south Sudan, they will have to do it while the world will see them."
In Khartoum, Sudan\’s army chief warned that south Sudan must withdraw all its forces "illegally" present in the north\’s territory.
General Ismat Abdul Rahman also urged students to join the northern army in the defence of the demarcation separating north Sudan from the south.
Kiir said the fighting would not stop the south being recognised as an independent state in July.
"The south will become independent on July 9, whether the north recognises the south or not," he said.
The US-based Enough Project released fresh photographs on Thursday that it said showed that northern troops helped in the "organised looting" of Abyei town after they captured it.
The group said the pictures "appear to show northern soldiers standing by as militia members load trucks full of looted food and other goods."
The images, taken on Monday, "provide evidence of organised ransacking and razing in Sudan’s Abyei town," the group said.
Other photographs show thatch huts on fire and gunmen in civilian clothes roaming the town, alongside what appear to be armed police officers.
"The Sudan government army provides protection for militias that are looting and burning Abyei," said Enough Project co-founder John Prendergast.
"The ultimate strategy is to ethnically cleanse Abyei, similar to what the regime has done in parts of Darfur."
More than 10,000 Abyei residents — mainly southern-supporting Dinka Ngok people — have fled the fighting across the border into the south, the United Nations says. Up to 30,000 more have fled southern border areas.
Southern information minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said northern-supporting Misseriya were moving into the Abyei area to replace them, but Misseriya leaders have denied the claims.
Looters stealing emergency supplies are hampering relief efforts for thousands fleeing Abyei, the UN said on Thursday.
The UN Country Team "deplores the looting of emergency relief stocks" in Abyei, including enough food to feed 50,000 people for three months, medical supplies and sanitation equipment.
UN staff said that many people have taken refuge in nearby villages, both to the north and the south.
"But what worries us the most is that many people who have fled Abyei are still hiding in the bush," Elizabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN\’s humanitarian office (OCHA), said in Geneva.
"We don\’t know the numbers nor the places where they are hiding but we think there are many."
Bashir has rejected international calls to pull his troops out of Abyei.
But in a scaling back of rhetoric, Khartoum’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) said there was "no intention of going back to war," the official SUNA news agency said late on Wednesday.