JUBA, May 22 – Thousands of civilians were fleeing fighting in Sudan’s contested Abyei district on Sunday, as the southern army admitted northern troops were in full control of its main town.
"The fighting has been very, very bad," said Philip Aguer, spokesman for the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
Late on Saturday, northern troops of the Sudan Armed Forces took the town of Abyei, focal point of deadly tensions between north and south in the run-up to the planned recognition of southern independence in late July, Aguer said.
"People have fled the area, because the bombardment was indiscriminate — bombs from the air and from tanks on the ground.
"They came into Abyei with a full division of soldiers, while we did not have a fighting force on the ground."
Troops loyal to the SPLA have all retreated into the south from the disputed district on the border with the north, he added.
"We don’t know the exact whereabouts of them now," Aguer said. "People are missing. They were attacked very heavily.”
Aguer said that there was no immediate counter-attack planned.
"As SPLA, we cannot declare war as an army. We are waiting for the government of southern Sudan to decide what is the next step."
The United Nations called on Saturday for an "immediate cessation of hostilities".
Their base in Abyei came under attack, with a mortar round landing inside the compound, but there were no casualties, a spokesman said.
A UN Security Council delegation arrived in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Saturday.
Aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which runs health clinics in Abyei town and 40 kilometers (25 miles) south in Agok, said in a statement that the "entire population of Abyei town fled the city".
Its clinic in Agok had received 42 wounded people by Saturday evening.
"MSF teams in Agok are on standby to respond to a further influx of wounded," the statement added but said it had also suspended work in Abyei.
Fighting in Abyei has pitted former civil war enemies against each other since January when it was due to vote on its future alongside a referendum on independence for the south.
But the plebiscite was postponed indefinitely as the north and south disagreed on who should be eligible to vote in an area where conflicted loyalties and land disputes keep tensions high.
A White House statement called on Sudan\’s armed forces "to immediately cease all offensive operations in Abyei and withdraw its forces.
"Failure to do so could set back the process of normalising relations between Sudan and the United States and inhibit the international community\’s ability to move forward on issues critical to Sudan\’s future," the statement warned.