New U.S. Sudan envoy sees tension building on Abyei

By Andrew Quinn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Sudan faces an increasingly tense situation as arms and fighters flow into the disputed region of Abyei, undercutting goodwill won by January’s secession vote, the United States said on Thursday.

President Barack Obama on Thursday named diplomat Princeton Lyman as his new special envoy for Sudan, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said was at a turning point in the shaky transition to independence for the oil-rich south of the country.

“This is a critical moment in Sudan’s history,” Clinton said in introducing Lyman, a veteran U.S. Africa hand who has served as ambassador to both South Africa and Nigeria.

Clinton said the Khartoum government had cooperated well with the January 9 referendum in which southern Sudan voted for independence, and “has continued to move this process forward with the same spirit of cooperation.”

But she noted huge challenges ahead particularly over the disputed border region of Abyei, where the United Nations says both the north and the south have deployed forces equipped with heavy weapons in moves some analysts fear could rekindle their long civil war.

“We call on both sides to take immediate steps to prevent future attacks and restore calm,” Clinton said.

“The deployment of forces by both sides is in violation of the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement and undermines the good will from January’s referendum.”

Clinton said that both sides must reach a broader agreement on Abyei before July 9, when southern Sudan will formally declare impendence, as well as make progress on resolving ongoing violence in Darfur.

100 DAYS TO GO

Obama, announcing Lyman’s appointment, said he was “uniquely qualified” to take over the Sudan brief, where he had already been assisting since August when he was asked to help guide north-south talks ahead of the January vote.

Obama’s first Sudan envoy, General Scott Gration, left the post in February and has been nominated to become the next U.S. ambassador to Kenya.

Lyman will depart on Saturday for meetings in Ethiopia and Sudan, and will look push again for a deal on Abyei as well as outstanding issues on border demarcation, citizenship and division of oil revenues, he said.

“We only have 100 days before July 9 when the south is to become fully independent. They have a lot of tough issues to negotiate. These are going to be hard negotiations,” he said.

He said the flow of both fighters and weapons into Abyei had created “a very tense situation” and that the U.N. peacekeeping effort in the region would have to be strengthened to fulfill its mandate as a verifying and monitoring group.

“We have to try and ease this immediate security problem, but I don’t think we’re going to get the tensions really resolved until the people in Abyei know what is going to happen to them,” he said.

Lyman said the United States was monitoring Khartoum’s progress along a “roadmap” Obama offered last year which could lead to eventual full normalization of ties contingent on improvements in Darfur and full implementation of the 2005 peace deal.

“They’re moving on some, we’re pushing hard on the others, and I think they do understand exactly how the timetable works,” he said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Andrew Quinn; editing by Mohammad Zargham and Jackie Frank)

New U.S. Sudan envoy sees tension building on Abyei