Page last updated at 14:56 GMT, Saturday, 24 May 2008 15:56 UK

Sudan tinderbox catches fire

By Amber Henshaw
BBC News, Abyei

Burning buildings in Abyei
Some homes were still burning after days of fighting in Abyei

Scavenger birds pick through the charred remains of houses and shops in the central Sudanese town of Abyei, four days after violent clashes between troops from the North and South of the country ended.

The place is almost empty - tens of thousands of people fled from the town and surrounding area to escape days of sporadic fighting.

Looters steal what they can - beds, pots and even clothes - from the thatch huts that are still standing, the northern soldiers who now control the town looking on.

There is almost nothing left of the once-vibrant market - just the charred skeletons of buildings.

'Totally devastated'

After a tour of the town in a UN armoured personnel carrier, the head of the UN mission in Sudan, Ashraf Qazi, was clearly shocked by what he had seen.

 Ashraf Qazi (c), head of the UN's mission in Sudan, travels round Abyei in an armoured personnel carrier
There's always the danger and risk of a further deterioration
Ashraf Qazi
UN head of mission in Sudan

"We have been to the centre of Abyei and it doesn't exist any more," he told journalists travelling with him.

"It's totally charred. It's totally devastated. And it's an absolute human tragedy and it is something that must never happen again."

The UN has always seen Abyei as a tinderbox.

The greatest fear is that the crisis in the area could escalate and reignite a bloody civil war, three years after a peace deal was signed between the north and south of the country.

Both North and South are desperate to have Abyei inside their borders because of the oil fields that surround the town.

They are unable to agree on the boundary for the area.

Heart of the problems

Difficult relations between the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the dominant National Congress Party (NCP) who formed a government in 2005 after two decades of civil war have been increasingly tense over recent months.

Late last year the SPLM pulled southern ministers out of its partnership with the NCP.

It accused the North of failing to implement the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

Map of Sudan
We fear there may be more fighting in the future
Abyei resident

Border demarcation and the status of Abyei were at the heart of the problems.

The town itself has suffered as a result of the political dispute.

Militia groups attached to both armies have not been fully integrated and cannot be properly controlled.

There is also underlying historical tension between the Misseriya tribe (largely allied to the North) and the southern Ngok Dinka (who look to the South).

"We are always concerned that situations like this can always escalate if they are not immediately dealt with," said Mr Qazi.

More fighting

It is unclear exactly how many people have been killed in the recent clashes.

UN peacekeepers in Abyei
UN peacekeepers toured the town which had been devastated by fighting

An army spokesman for the North said 21 of their soldiers had died.

An SPLM official said about 25 police had died.

Aid workers in Agok said they had seen 129 wounded southern soldiers and one injured civilian.

A UN spokesman said up to 90,000 people had been displaced by the fighting.

Many of them have fled to the Agok area about 30kms (19m) from Abyei.

One woman I spoke to had lost her husband in the recent clashes.

He was killed in the crossfire. She said they had only returned to Abyei with their 10 children six months ago.

They had fled from the south to Khartoum during the civil war that raged for more than twenty years. This latest fighting served as a bitter reminder of those days.

She said: "We fear there may be more fighting in the future."

For the aid workers trying to help the thousands of displaced who are living in the most basic conditions it is a race against time.

Heavy rains are likely to start in around two weeks.

Unless people have adequate shelter, food and proper latrines by then there is a risk that deadly, water-borne diseases like cholera could spread.

At the moment there is an uneasy calm in Abyei.

The SPLM has withdrawn its troops to the south of the river and the northern troops are in the town but many fear that without a long term solution the violence could flare up again with potentially devastating consequences.

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