Sudan army says it was attacked in border hotspot

May 20, 2011 - 6:58 AM

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Sudan's army said Friday that rival southern forces attacked its troops as they were pulling out of the contested region of Abyei along the north-south border in a United Nations convoy.

The United Nations strongly condemned the incident, calling it "a criminal attack against the UN."

The UN mission in Sudan said the attack occurred Thursday evening in Dokura, an area controlled by the southern Sudanese police 6 miles (10 kilometers) north of Abyei town.

The UN convoy was transporting 200 northern army troops when the attack occurred, the UN said in a statement.

The southern forces denied that they attacked first and said the fighting was a provocation by the north.

Abyei has long been a hotspot, with both the north and south staking claim to the fertile area near several oil fields. Fears are rising that a new conflict could ignite there as Southern Sudan prepares to become the world's newest country in July.

Thursday's fighting and the dispute over who provoked it underscores the volatility between Sudan's north and south ahead of the south's independence. The two sides fought for more than two decades and the civil war claimed around 2 million lives before it ended in 2005. In January, people in southern Sudan voted in a referendum to secede from the north, a decision that will split Africa's largest country in two.

Earlier this month, the northern and southern governments agreed to deploy a joint north-south force in Abyei after withdrawing their separate units, which have stoked tensions in the region.

Sudan's army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled said northern troops were ambushed by the southern army Thursday and suffered "huge losses." He said his side reserves the right to retaliate.

A spokesman for the south's Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army, or SPLA, denied that, saying the northern forces provoked the fighting in at attempt to seize the disputed area.

"The SPLA has been respecting the cease-fire," said Col. Philip Aguer.

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Associated Press writer Maggie Fick in Juba, Southern Sudan, contributed to this report.