KHARTOUM Armed looters set fire to parts of Sudan's disputed Abyei border town on Monday, the United Nations said, days after north Sudanese troops seized it, pushing the north and south closer to conflict.
North Sudan's army vowed to hold all the territory it took, defying demands from the U.N. Security Council and other world powers for it to withdraw.
Analysts fear north-south fighting over Abyei could reignite a full blown conflict in Sudan, a move that could have a devastating impact on the surrounding region.
Both Sudan's mostly Muslim north and the south, where most follow Christian and traditional beliefs, claim the fertile, oil-producing Abyei border region.
Its ownership was not settled in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war.
Abyei remains the biggest point of contention in the build-up to the secession of the south, due to take place on July 9.
The northern army sent tanks into Abyei on Saturday, the United Nations said, after weeks of growing tension and accusations of skirmishes by both sides.
Thousands of people fled, leaving Abyei town empty, while food supplies have also been disrupted, the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said.
Personnel from a U.N. peacekeeping base in Abyei said the violence had forced them to stop patrols.
The U.N. Mission (UNMIS) "strongly condemns the burning and looting currently being perpetrated by armed elements in Abyei town," said U.N. spokesman Kouider Zerrouk in a statement.
U.N. Security Council envoys visiting Sudan, who earlier demanded the north withdraw, were expected to meet the southern government in the southern capital Juba on Monday.
NORTH VOWS TO STAY
North Sudanese officials said they had no plans to leave the territory.
"We are going to stay in Abyei until there is a different decision," northern defence minister Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein told parliament in Khartoum in a speech interrupted by "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) calls from many deputies.
"Free citizens, your armed forces will hold all areas which the laws and agreements entrust to it. They will work on establishing peace and stability so the government can reach a solution and accord to ensure security and stability in the region," the northern army told state media late on Sunday.
North Sudan says it sent in troops to clear out southern soldiers who it said had broken agreements by entered the area.
Around 100 southerners protested in Juba against the northern military action in Abyei, holding up banners that described it as an invasion, witnesses said.
"It is hopefully not the beginning of a wider conflict but it has the potential for it," said analyst Roger Middleton from London's Chatham House.
"Abyei is important to north and south. There is oil, grazing land and emotional reasons. Many leaders in the SPLM (the south's ruling party) come from Abyei," he said.
Southerners overwhelmingly voted to declare independence from the north in a January referendum promised in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
The same deal also promised Abyei residents their own referendum over whether to join the north or south but that never took place as neither side could agree on who was qualified to vote.
The last civil war killed an estimated 2 million people and forced around 4 million to flee, many of them to countries neighbouring Sudan.
Analysts say there is a risk Abyei fighting could spread to other parts of Sudan, particularly the surrounding region of South Kordifan, also hit by north-south tensions.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)