Sudan or South Sudan? Contested Abyei votes

ABYEI – Residents of the flashpoint Abyei region claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan were voting on Monday, October 28, in an unofficial referendum to decide which country they belong to, a move likely inflame tensions in the war-ravaged region, officials said.

"The people are voting to choose to join South Sudan or to be part of Sudan," Rou Manyiel, chairman of the Abyei civil society organization, told Agence France-Presse.

Patrolled by some 4,000 Ethiopian-led UN peacekeepers, the area is home to the settled Ngok Dinka, closely connected to South Sudan, as well the semi-nomadic Arab Misseriya, who traditionally move back and forth from Sudan grazing their cattle.

Only the Ngok Dinka are voting in the referendum, and the Misseriya have already angrily said they will not recognize the results of any unilateral poll.

Abyei was meant to vote on whether to be part of Sudan or South Sudan in January 2011 – the same day Juba voted overwhelmingly to split from the north – as part of the 2005 peace deal which ended Sudan's civil war.

That referendum was repeatedly stalled, and Ngok Dinka leaders last week said they would press ahead with their own vote.

However, the United Nations and AU have warned that any such unilateral move could inflame tensions in the oil-producing zone and risk destabilizing the uneasy peace between the longtime foes.

"There are long queues of people, but things are peaceful and calm," Manyiel added, a senior Ngok Dinka community leader. "They began to vote on Sunday and they will finish voting on Tuesday, the third day."

An Agence France-Presse photographer in Abyei said long lines of residents were lining up to cast their vote, with ballot papers marked with two symbols to chose from: a pair of clasped hands symbolizing a vote to be part of Sudan, and a single hand if people want to join South Sudan.

On Sunday, October 27, the African Union accused the Sudan government of preventing an AU delegation from visiting Abyei following talks that failed to make progress on the flashpoint region.

The AU "expresses its deep disappointment and regret that it was unable to undertake the visit (Saturday and Sunday)", it said, accusing Khartoum of postponing it "for contrived security reasons". –