THE HAGUE (Reuters) - A court on Wednesday redrew the boundaries of Sudan’s disputed oil-producing Abyei region, ceding key oilfields to north Sudan in a decision hailed as a resolution to a long-standing territorial conflict.
Leaders from north and south Sudan pledged to respect the ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague as more than 1,000 people danced through the streets of Abyei to celebrate the decision.
But some analysts said there was still a risk of a return to conflict over the central district, as the implications of the complex Hague ruling sank in among northern and southern supporters and communities who live in the area.
Both north and south Sudan have claimed Abyei, a central area straddling the country’s north-south border, for decades.
The definition of its borders was so sensitive it was left undecided in a 2005 peace accord that ended more than two decades of civil war between Sudan’s mostly Christian south and its Muslim north.
The north’s dominant National Congress Party (NCP) rejected one boundary drawn up by a panel of experts later in 2005.
Tensions mounted until northern and southern troops clashed in Abyei town in May last year, killing up to 100 people and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee.
Both sides agreed to refer the issue to the Hague court which on Wednesday decided to adjust boundaries drawn up by the 2005 panel, pulling in its borders to the north, east and west.
Maps of the new boundary published in The Hague leave the area’s key Heglig and Bamboo oilfields outside Abyei, placing them in the north Sudan district of Southern Kordofan.
“We think about a minimum of 10,000 square kilometers have been returned to the north. Most importantly this territory includes the disputed oilfields,” said Dirdeiry Mohamed Ahmed, representing the NCP at The Hague.
The Abyei dispute also has ramifications for Darfur, with analysts warning if violence returned to Abyei, peace and stability in Sudan, including Darfur, would be increasingly difficult to achieve.
“I think one of the problems, especially with the government in Khartoum, has been a history of making commitments and then not fulfilling them and not being held to account. And Abyei is an important test in that regard,” said Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition.
The borders of Abyei are particularly important to southerners because Abyei residents have been promised a referendum on whether to join southern Sudan in January 2011, under the terms of the peace deal.
On the same day, south Sudan as a whole is also due to vote on whether to split off as a separate country.
Wednesday’s ruling gave Abyei the bulk of the region that was defined in 2005, including Abyei town, huge areas of fertile land and one significant oilfield.
Leaders from both sides accepted the ruling calling it a compromise, although south Sudan President Salva Kiir said some might be disappointed at parts of the decision, a probable reference to Abyei losing the oil fields.
“But we have given our word (to accept the judgment) and by our word we will stand,” he told reporters in the south’s capital Juba.
“We want peace. We think this decision is going to consolidate the peace,” south Sudan’s Vice-President Riek Machar told reporters at The Hague. “We came to see justice and it’s a decision we will respect.”
Abyei residents said they were satisfied with the ruling. “The important thing is we know where our territory is now,” said tea stall owner Nyan Abok. “Land is more important than oil,” added aid worker Kuol Deng Alak.
The U.S. special envoy to Sudan said he was convinced the ruling would be fully implemented.
“The commitments that these folks have made in words, I am convinced that they will be carried out in deed, and that this arbitration decision will be fully implemented,” envoy Scott Gration told journalists gathered in the U.N. compound in Abyei.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also welcomed the court’s decision.
It remains to be seen how the decision will be greeted by northern Arab Misseriya nomads, who may see the establishment of a fixed Abyei border as a challenge to their rights to cross with animals, although access is guaranteed by the Hague ruling.
“The crucial thing will be whether both sides accept this ruling,” Alex Vines, Africa specialist at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, told Reuters. “Tensions have risen in the last few days and the next few months will be absolutely crucial.”
Additional reporting Jose Vieira in Juba, Andrew Heavens in Abyei, and Tara Cleary and Patrick Worsnip in New York