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Fighting over Sudan oil zones escalates
by Staff Writers
Khartoum, Sudan (UPI) Jun 10, 2011

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The conflict in Sudan over oil zones on the hotly disputed border between the Arab Muslim north and the African Christian south, due to become the world's newest state July 9, is widening with both sides squaring off for a renewal of a civil war halted in 2005.

The United States and other Western states have voiced concern that recent military actions, largely by the Khartoum regime in the north, are pushing the country into a ruinous conflict that could destabilize East Africa.

Fighting that erupted in Abyei, a key oil-producing area that straddles the north-south boundary, several weeks ago has spread in recent days to the South Kordofan region.

That's the north's only oil-producing state and borders the south, like another high-tension region, Blue Nile State which also borders the south.

Kordofan's residents have strong links with the south and fought against the Khartoum regime in the 1983-2005 civil war. The area was a major battleground during that conflict in which 2 million people died.

The Sudanese army, commanded by Khartoum, invaded heavily contested Abyei in May with an estimated 15,000 troops with tanks.

U.N. observers estimate more than 80,000 civilians were forced to flee southward where the nascent southern government in its capital in the ramshackle town of Juba has few resources.

In recent days, northern forces have driven into South Kordofan and Blue Nile, tightening a blockade of the impoverished and long-neglected south.

Losing control of 80 percent of Sudan's oil would virtually cripple the north's economy, and that in turn would leave the Khartoum regime dangerously exposed.

It remains unclear whether President Omar al-Bashir, a former army officer who has ruled since 1989, intends to resume full-scale hostilities with the forces of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, or to seize control of as much of the country's oil as possible.

Not that there's much difference between those two options.

If the north holds the oil-producing areas the SPLM's military wing, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which fought Khartoum throughout the civil war, would have little choice but to fight again or perish.

Whether the southerners, for whom independence had finally appeared within reach after 50 years of conflict, will get more international support than they got before 2005 is questionable.

The Middle East and North Africa are gripped by political turmoil that looks like dramatically changing the region's geopolitical landscape, and not necessarily to the advantage of the West.

The United States is bogged down in Afghanistan and Europe is engaged in an increasingly stalemated demi-war in Libya.

There seems little appetite for more foreign entanglements.

The only hope of avoiding another possibly catastrophic conflict is a deal on the oil before the secession that southern voted overwhelmingly for in a January referendum becomes official July 9.

Sudan produces around 500,000 barrels of oil a day. Most of that comes from the south. But the north has the pipelines that carry it to Port Sudan on the Red Sea for export and the refinery that turns the crude into petroleum.

It is telling that Khartoum's forces, including renegade southern militias paid and armed by the north, have been careful to avoid damaging oil installations in their recent push into southern territory.

This underlines the belief widely held in the south, and among relief agencies and outside observers, that the north wants to keep the oil installations intact for its own use.

With Sudan scheduled to split in two of a month's time, there looks like little prospect of an agreement on which state should control the fertile, oil-producing region of Abyei and other sectors of the disputed border.

The U.N. Security Council has denounced Khartoum's ongoing military control of Abyei. It said the invasion was a "serious violation" of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005 amid northern efforts to "force significant changes in the ethnic composition of the area."

Khartoum last week rejected a Security Council call to withdraw its forces from Abyei while the southern leadership was coming under growing internal pressure to strike back at the north.

Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Sudan's blood-soaked Darfur region, even declared: "We want brotherly ties between the north and the south."

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