JOHANNESBURG – The United Nations says Sudan's north and south have agreed to withdraw all "unauthorized forces" from a contested border hotspot, where fears are rising that a new conflict could ignite as Southern Sudan prepares to become the world's newest country.
The northern and southern governments agreed to deploy a joint north-south force in Abyei and withdraw the forces that are stoking tensions in the area, the U.N. in a Sunday statement.
The deal is the latest effort to quell tensions in Abyei, a fertile and oil-producing border region to which both north and south Sudan stake claim.
The north and south have signed several U.N.-brokered deals on the status of Abyei this year, but none of them have been fully implemented and the status of the territory remains unresolved.
The International Crisis Group warned Sunday that "Abyei is on the brink of dangerous new conflict."
"Failure to halt the downward trend toward violence in Abyei could unravel the tenuous peace that has been strong enough to get through the Southern Sudan referendum," the Brussels-based think tank said in a statement.
A land of blond grasslands during the dry season and lush green expanses during the rainy season, Abyei is home to Ngok Dinka subsistence farmers who are loyal to the south.
The region is also used by the Misseriya people, Arab cattle-herders who graze seasonally through Abyei, moving south to water their cattle at the River Kiir, which they call the Bahr el-Arab. Even the name of this treasured water source is contested by these two populations who warily coexist on this land.
Abyei was promised its own self-determination vote in the 2005 north-south peace deal that ended decades of war. That referendum was set to occur at the same time as Southern Sudan's January independence vote, but it did not happen due to a dispute between north and south over who should be eligible to vote.
As southerners headed peacefully to the polls in January, clashes broke out in Abyei. The militarized zone has been on edge since then, with more than 100 people killed in clashes.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that the military standoff is unacceptable and threatens peace.
Hollywood star and activist George Clooney's satellite monitoring project has released images showing hundreds of torched huts and burned villages after some of these attacks.
At least 14 people died in a clash between armed forces earlier this month.
Diplomats hope the removal of forces from Abyei could reduce the chances of further violence. Both sides have traded accusations that the other is supporting proxy forces in Abyei.
"There was good will from both sides and we hope to follow-up on this spirit," said Major Gen. Moses Bisong Obi, the commander in charge of the 10,000 peacekeepers in the U.N.'s Sudan mission, after Sunday's meeting in the northern town of Kadugli.
However, both north and south Sudan have made official overtures suggesting they control the disputed region.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir threatened last month he would not recognize the new southern nation if it includes Abyei.
And the first draft of Southern Sudan's interim constitution, approved by the cabinet last week, refers to Abyei as part of the south.
Al-Bashir and southern leader Salva Kiir pledged earlier this year to resolve the Abyei stalemate by the end of March. That deadline passed with no further progress announced by either side.
Sudan has endured various civil wars for all but a few years of its independent history. The oil-rich south will become the world's newest country on July 9, though analysts say the nation will struggle to address security and development challenges within its borders.