North, south Sudan agree to demilitarize Abyei

Leaders from north and south Sudan signed an agreement on Monday to demilitarize the disputed central region of Abyei and allow an Ethiopian peacekeeping force to move in, said a former South African president who is helping lead peace talks.

Thabo Mbeki said Monday's agreement provides for the full demilitarization of Abyei, a fertile land near major oil fields that both north and south claim as their own. Troops from northern Sudan moved into the region last month, action that sent tens of thousands of people who are aligned with the south fleeing.

"The Sudan Armed Forces will pull out and will be deployed outside Abyei," said Mbeki, who helped lead the talks in neighboring Ethiopia.

The agreement comes three weeks before the south is set to secede from the north and create the world's newest country. Heavy violence has broken out along the north-south border in the run-up to the south's independence declaration.

An Ethiopian peacekeeping force that is ready to deploy will move in to Abyei as soon as possible, Mbeki said. The U.N. Security Council will decide at a meeting in New York what the mandate and size of the Ethiopian force will be.

Shortly after the agreement was reached, Mbeki told the U.N. Security Council by video conference that both parties want the U.N. to move quickly to see the agreement implemented. Mbeki said urgent action would allow the displaced people of Abyei to return after military forces leave, allowing the humanitarian situation to be addressed.

The text of the agreement says the Ethiopian forces will deploy "as soon as authorized by the United Nations." One brigade — typically around 4,000 troops — is to be deployed.

"It will also bring to an end this threat of violence, and actual violence in the area, so we are really hoping that (the) Security Council will look at this agreement as early as possible and take all the necessary decisions so that the various provisions in the agreement can be implemented," Mbeki said by video conference.

Tens of thousands of people fled Abyei after northern troops moved in last month. More recently, tens of thousands of people aligned with the south have also fled attacks by the northern military in the state of South Kordofan. Talks on the violence in that region are set to begin Tuesday, Mbeki said.

North and south Sudan fought a civil war that lasted decades and killed some 2 million people. It ended with a 2005 peace deal that gave the south the right to hold a self-determination vote. The region voted overwhelmingly in January to secede, but the north and south have yet to work out details like demarcation of the border and sharing of oil wealth.

The north and south also agreed on a temporary solution for the administration of Abyei. The Abyei Council will elect a chairman nominated by the government of Sudan. A joint committee with two members from both sides and another member nominated by African Union chair Jean Ping will supervise the administration, the police force and the security situation.

"This should result in restoring peace and open the way for the two parties to discuss the final status of Abyei," Mbeki said. "That is not possible until you have stabilized the security situation."

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Associated Press reporter Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.