Sudan deploys tanks, helicopters near Abyei: images

By Deepa Babington

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudan’s northern army has deployed attack helicopters and tanks within range of the disputed Abyei area, a satellite monitoring project said, adding to concerns that the north and south are gearing for conflict.

Abyei is considered the most likely region to reignite decades of violence between the mostly Muslim Arab north and the south, which mostly follows traditional beliefs or Christianity. The south is due to become an independent nation in July.

Both the north and south have been building up forces in the area and arming them with weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, activists and the United Nations have said.

In recent weeks, the northern army has also deployed two attack helicopters, nine tanks and support vehicles for moving armor at its Muglad base, about 175 km (110 miles) from Abyei town, according to satellite images from the Satellite Sentinel project.

“The introduction of attack helicopters and main battle tanks within range of Abyei constitutes a major escalation of SAF (Sudanese Armed Forces) military capacity in the area,” said the project, which was started by actor George Clooney and other activists.

A spokesman for the northern army (SAF) said it had no troops inside Abyei and that it was free to manage its resources as it saw fit in Muglad since the area is in northern territory.

“I can say we are not going to do anything in Abyei. We are not going to attack or fight in Abyei,” spokesman Al-Sawarmi Khaled said.

HIND GUNSHIPS

The satellite images of the helicopters were consistent with Mi-24 Hind gunships that have reportedly been used by Khartoum in Darfur, the project said.

It said the tanks appeared to be T-55s, which have a range of 500 km (300 miles), and the truck images were consistent with support vehicles needed for forward deployment of heavy armor.

Forces aligned with the south have not brought in these kinds of helicopter gunships or main battle tanks to the region, Jonathan Hutson of the Enough project, which is part of the satellite monitoring group, said in an emailed statement.

The images also showed that the outer fortification of an army encampment had been strongly reinforced.

Last week, the U.N. peacekeeping mission’s force commander cautioned that both the north and south were militarizing Abyei by sending forces with weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns loaded onto vehicles and rocket launchers.

Abyei was due to vote on January 9 on whether to join the north or south, but the plebiscite stalled as the north and south disagreed on who should be allowed to vote.

Tensions have remained high with increasingly inflamed rhetoric from both the north, which supports the Arab Misseriya tribe that grazes its cattle in Abyei, and the south that backs the Dinka Ngok tribe that lives there year round.

Tens of thousands of people fled Abyei town last month after a surge in fighting left dozens dead.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller)

Sudan deploys tanks, helicopters near Abyei: images