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Oil report

Q+A: What is behind Sudan's Abyei crisis

KHARTOUM, July 20 (Reuters) - Political tensions are rising in Sudan ahead of a ruling on Wednesday on the borders of Abyei, an oil-producing area claimed by northerners and southerners.

Analysts have warned the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague could reignite north-south fighting over Abyei, a development that would disrupt the country’s oil industry and undermine a key peace deal.

Here are some questions and answers about Abyei.

WHAT IS ABYEI?

Abyei is a central area straddling the undefined border between Sudan’s Muslim north and mostly Christian south.

For many years, large parts of the territory have been shared by the Ngok Dinka, part of south Sudan’s Dinka group, and northern Arab Misseriya nomads.

Abyei is currently governed by a joint north-south administration. But residents have been promised a referendum in January 2011 on whether they want to join north or south Sudan.

On the same day, south Sudan as a whole has been promised another vote on whether to split off as an independent country.

WHAT IS AT THE HEART OF THE DISPUTE?

Both sides differ over the ownership of Abyei and its boundaries. Southerners say Abyei covers a much larger area of land than the north is prepared to accept.

On one level, this is an argument about how much north Sudan stands to lose if Abyei joins the south, especially if southerners, as is widely expected, also choose secession.

WHAT LED UP TO WEDNESDAY’S RULING?

The status and borders of Abyei were among the most sensitive issues left undecided in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended more than two decades of civil war between north and south Sudan.

Efforts to reach a settlement since 2005 have failed and northern and southern forces have already clashed over Abyei a number of times, forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee.

Last year, both sides referred the issue to the Hague court and have promised they would accept its decision.

WHAT WILL THE HAGUE COURT BE RULING ON?

On the surface, the court’s Abyei tribunal has been asked to rule on a technical issue. That is whether a panel of international experts, set up by the peace deal, went beyond its mandate when it outlined Abyei’s borders in 2005.

The Hague tribunal could accept the panel’s border, with its northern boundary about 90km (55 miles) north of Abyei town, taking in oilfields, a large section of pipeline, a railway town, grazing land and agricultural projects. This finding would please southerners, although some want even more territory.

If the tribunal decides the panel went too far, it can draw its own boundary.

In the past, northern leaders have argued Abyei makes up a small slice of land south of Abyei town, south of the river Kiir, as it is known by the Dinka, or Bahr el-Arab to northerners. Under this definition, even Abyei town would fall outside Abyei area.

WHAT IS AT STAKE ON A NATIONAL LEVEL?

Both sides want control of oil installations north of Abyei town, run by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), a consortium led by CNPC of China, the main oil group operating in the Abyei area.

Both sides want to keep the loyalty of communities that supported them during the civil war -- for northerners the Misseriya, for southerners the Ngok Dinka.

There are also emotional motivations. Abyei has become an emblem for the south and north after decades of fighting. Senior members of the south’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement come from the area.

Analysts see Abyei as a test of both sides’ commitment to the 2005 peace deal, ahead of other flashpoints including elections due in April 2010, and the secession referendum.

WHAT IS AT STAKE ON A LOCAL LEVEL?

Grazing and land rights are the key issue for the Dinka and the heavily armed Misseriya. Many feel this competition over resources could be managed through traditional settlements and earlier agreements, if it wasn’t for the national clash.

WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF CONFLICT?

The United Nations, the United States and other interested countries, will be pressing both sides to avoid conflict. Senior U.N. and government officials have promised to be in Abyei town on Wednesday to quell any violence.

But it is unclear where the parties will find room for compromise -- one will probably emerge a winner, the other a loser. Over the weekend, the United Nations said there was a build-up of southern troops close to Abyei, an accusation denied by the south. U.N. peacekeepers in the town do not have the equipment or manpower to intervene in a full-blown clash.

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