Violence continues to beset Abyei, the largest town in a contested border region between north and south Sudan, as the planned division of the country approaches. DW spoke with the information minister for South Sudan.
Inhabitants ran for their lives from Abyei; the UN has condemned the burnings
Residents of Abyei - the largest town of a contested border region between north and south Sudan - fled for safety after northern forces took the town by force this weekend. That seizure of the town was said to be in retaliation for an attack by southern forces on a northern military convoy that was withdrawing, as per agreement, under a UN escort.
Under the terms of a 2005 agreement, Sudan is slated to divide officially into two separate countries in July this year. But the ongoing violence in Abyei, which is rich in water and grasslands, reflects the failure of politicians to agree whether the town should belong to the north or south. Observers are warning of renewed civil war.
DW's Daniel Pelz interviewed Barnaba Marial Benjamin, the minister of information and broadcasting in the government of South Sudan.
Deutsche Welle: The Northern army is so far refusing to withdraw its troops from Abyei. What response from the international community would you like to see at this stage?
Barnaba Marial Benjamin: Well, first of all it is an illegal and unconstitutional move that the president of the Republic of Sudan ordered the Sudanese Armed Forces to invade Abyei. To us, this is an act of war, it is not in the good spirit of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. We expect the international community and the UN Security Council to take very serious steps in order to ask the government of Sudan to remove its forces from Abyei.
If the Sudanese government refuses to listen to the good voice of peace from the United Nations Security Council, than further measures can be taken, because they have taken a military action that disturbs world peace and regional peace. If the Sudanese government refuses, it is the responsibility of the international community to see that these people are physically removed from Abyei. What they have done is that they have burned down the town, they have looted the property of innocent civilians.
Are there any plans on your side to retaliate by invading Northern territory?
No, we have signed a peace agreement, why should we invade Northern territory? We will not ask our army to cause any retaliation at all, because we have signed a comprehensive peace agreement in front of the international community that the Sudanese issue should be resolved peacefully.
South Sudan Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin
We would expect that the spirit of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement must continue and we are continuing even to negotiate with the National Congress Party and the government in Khartoum to resolve the remaining issues. So why would we join a unilateral declaration of war by Khartoum?
You said yourself it is a very grave situation at the moment. Is their any chance for a peaceful resolution of the Abyei crisis?
That is the only way out. It is a political issue, it is not a military issue. It is a political issue that needs a peaceful resolution.
And what might this peaceful solution look like? Is there still a chance to implement the Abyei protocol and have a referendum at this stage?
It is not an issue of chance, it is a commitment. It is a commitment between the two parties, by the National Congress Party in Khartoum and the SPLM in the Government of South Sudan. We agreed at Naivasha in Kenya that the people of Abyiei should go for a referendum to decide whether they want to go back to Southern Sudan or remain in the North. So the only way out is a peaceful resolution of this conflict.
The government in Khartoum says that the South started the recent violence by attacking a Northern army convoy on May 20th. What is your position on that?
That is not true. It is never true that the SPLA actually shot at the Sudanese army. In the first place, there is no presence of SPLA in Abyei. And it has been proved now. When the Sudanese army entered Abyei, did they find any SPLA troops? The only troops present in Abyei were the Joined Integrated Units of Sudanese Armed Forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army. These units were constituted by the agreements to be present in Abyei together with the United Nations peacekeeping forces.
The incident that happened was an isolated incident between two soldiers, where a bullet was fired. Then people immediately reacted, confusion arose and everybody was shooting everybody else. When tension in the military is very high, you get these sorts of things.
You remember in Afghanistan, American soldiers shot each other by mistake. But what responsible governments do is to investigate how incidents develop into this. You don't declare a war out of this.
Is the government of South Sudan still planning to go ahead with the independence of South Sudan slated for July?
Of course. We are going to have our independence on July 9th. The preparations are on, we will have our independence. There is no question, we are continuing talking to Khartoum on post-referendum issues that are left and we are still saying that the issue of Abyiei might be resolved according to the agreement we have signed.
The people of South Sudan have democratically voted to have a country of their own, it was a free, fair and credible referendum recognized in the whole world and recognized by both parties, the NCP and the SPLM, the government in Khartoum and the government of South Sudan. The independence will go ahead.
Interview: Daniel Pelz
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn