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(Johannesburg) - The Sudanese government urgently needs to halt looting and destruction of civilian property by its forces in the town of Abyei and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should allow United Nations peacekeepers access to the entire Abyei area, Human Rights Watch said.

Just weeks ahead of Southern Sudan's formal separation from the rest of the country, the northern-based Sudanese army on May 21, 2011, effectively took control of the disputed border territory. The action violates the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and other agreements between the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the southern ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

"Sudan's military offensive has led to serious human rights violations, as well as violating  the peace agreements that were so long and painful in  the making." said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "It should immediately end the mass displacement of civilians and other abuses by soldiers and allied militias."

The assault on the town of Abyei followed a series of skirmishes between southern and northern armed forces, including an alleged attack on May 19 by southern armed forces on northern troops traveling with a UN convoy near Abyei. The Sudanese army responded with an aggressive military offensive on the town of Abyei and surrounding villages, deploying more than 25 tanks and shelling and bombing civilian areas in Abyei and other towns.

In the following days, tens of thousands of people, including the elderly and unaccompanied children, fled Abyei, Agok, and surrounding towns, and more than 60 sought medical care from nearby humanitarian organizations. With the town of Abyei largely abandoned, soldiers and militia - drawn from the semi-nomadic Misseriya community that claims land rights in Abyei territory - appear to have gone on a rampage of destruction and looting in the town.

On May 25, Sudan's forces were still burning tukuls, Sudanese huts, and looting properties, including food stores of the World Food Program, witnesses reached by telephone told Human Rights Watch. In addition, UN sources told Human Rights Watch the Sudanese government appears to have facilitated movement of thousands of Misseriya into the town. If true, these moves suggest the Sudanese government is resettling the area to strengthen its claim to the territory in violation of international humanitarian law and the rights of displaced civilians to return, Human Rights Watch said.

Although the attacks on Abyei have drawn wide condemnation from the UN, African Union, European Union, United States, and other concerned governments, the Sudanese government has continued to allow its forces to carry out serious human rights violations.

The international community should keep up strong and unified pressure on Sudanese leaders to end Sudan's dangerous and illegal campaign and should not normalize relations with Sudan under these conditions, Human Rights Watch said.

Sudan has allowed southern secession to proceed, as called for by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, with the hope that global powers would lift sanctions. Sanctions were largely imposed in response to the massive human rights violations committed in Darfur.

The International Criminal Court is investigating crimes committed in Darfur and has issued four arrest warrants and several summonses to appear for Darfur crimes. These include warrants for President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The Sudanese government has in response obstructed the court's work and refused to surrender suspects.

"We are seeing yet again that the failure to insist on justice for atrocities in Darfur can embolden further abuses," Bekele said. "This is a wake-up call to the international community that more political weight is needed to ensure suspects for the heinous crimes in Darfur - including President al-Bashir - appear in the dock."

The full impact of the violence in Abyei, including civilian casualties and the number and whereabouts of displaced persons, is not known. The United Nations peacekeeping forces, which have a mandate to protect civilians in imminent danger, remained inside their compound during the military attacks. The shelling damaged UN property and wounded two soldiers, and unknown gunmen fired on UN helicopters on May 25. Since the attack, peacekeepers have patrolled within the town of Abyei in anti-personnel carriers for protection from armed militia who continue to roam the area and loot with impunity.

The UN peacekeepers should increase and widen their patrols, Human Rights Watch said. Their civilian human rights staff should investigate and document the full impact of the violence on civilians, including loss of homes and property and other human rights violations and press for accountability.

"Sudan is obliged to allow the peacekeepers to patrol freely throughout the area, and let them carry out their mandate to protect civilians and secure humanitarian access," Bekele said. "By the same token, the UN peacekeepers need to ramp up their presence and patrols, especially to areas where civilians have fled or chosen to remain."

The oil-producing territory of Abyei, which straddles the north-south boundary, has fueled tensions between northern and southern authorities for decades. A protocol to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended Sudan's 22-year civil war, placed Abyei under a special administrative status and called for a referendum on whether it should remain part of the north or join the south.

Delays in implementing the agreement culminated in large-scale clashes in 2008 between the Sudanese army and Southern Sudanese forces that killed dozens of civilians and displaced more than 60,000 people. Following international arbitration, Abyei's boundaries were agreed in July 2009, but the parties have not demarcated them.

Intermittent clashes between northern and southern armed forces in Abyei's territory have killed scores of people since January, when the referendum on Abyei's status was supposed to have taken place alongside the southern independence referendum. The Abyei referendum has been delayed indefinitely over disagreements on voter eligibility of the area's two main ethnic groups, the cattle-herding, semi-nomadic Misseriya and the southern ethnic Dinka Ngok.

Southern Sudan is due to secede from Sudan formally on July 9, following the January referendum, in which southerners voted overwhelmingly for independence.

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