Abyei welcomes UN-backed referendum in disputed region

Ilya Gridneff
A woman prepares tea at an outdoor coffee shop near a polling station located in a school during a referendum in the town of Abyei
A woman prepares tea at an outdoor coffee shop near a polling station located in a school during a referendum in the town of Abyei October 29, 2013.REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

By Ilya Gridneff

ABYEI (Reuters) - Abyei officials welcomed a push by the African Union to involve the U.N. Security Council in helping plan a referendum to resolve a dispute in the remote border region.

The AU last year promised Abyei a plebiscite in October 2013 but shied away from the proposal, and has since discouraged the unilateral referendum that ended on Tuesday, with some analysts saying the outcome could trigger violence.

Thousands of residents in the region took part in a three-day vote whose result will be non-binding but would indicate whether Abyei wants to join Sudan or South Sudan.

The result of the vote in which 65,000 people had registered to take part in is expected on October 31.

An expected unanimous vote by Dinka Ngok people from South Sudan could antagonize heavily armed, pro-Sudan Misseriya nomads who drive their livestock through the region.

Abyei's ownership was left undecided when South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in 2011 and a long-promised official plebiscite on its status has been stalled by arguments over who can vote, prompting the local referendum initiative.

Justice Deng Biong, head of legal affairs for the Abyei referendum committee, said it was the first time the AU has called on the UN Security Council to take up the issue.

"If adopted by the UN Security Council then automatically the proposal has to be enforced by the UN," he said.

The United Nations has a 5,000-strong, mainly Ethiopian peacekeeping force deployed to monitor tensions between the nomads and residents in the region, which has small oil reserves and has seen several clashes between Sudanese and South Sudanese troops.

The AU's Council for Peace and Security over the weekend blamed Sudan for preventing it from visiting Abyei ahead of the referendum, and demanded that "Sudan refrain from obstructing its work and extend full cooperation in support of the AU's efforts to manage and resolve the situation in Abyei."

The AU said it would visit Abyei on November 5 and 6.

In September 2012, the AU panel which mediates between Sudan and South Sudan, proposed that a referendum be held in October 2013 to determine Abyei's final status, and has said that while South Sudan supports the proposal, Sudan is strongly opposed to it.

Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman Abu Bakr Saddiq that "we in Sudan are committed to support and respect" the AU's Council for Peace and Security.

He also rejected accusations that Sudan had prevented the AU officials visiting the region.

"Sudan welcomes the visit of the African peace council to Abyei next week," said Saddiq.

(Corrects story published on October 29 to make clear Sudan welcomed visit by AU team, not proposal to involve U.N. Security Council in headline, paragraphs 1 and 13)

(Additional reporting by Khaled Abdelaziz in Khartoum; Writing by James Macharia)