Cablegate: Aec Visits Devastated Abyei Town and Refugees

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E.O. 12958: N/A


1. (U) Summary: An Assessment and Evaluation Committee (AEC)
delegation visited Abyei and associated refugee sites May 28 to view
the effects of recent fighting between Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and
Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) units in that town. Abyei is
now completely under the control of SAF forces, and much of the town
has been burned to the ground. Armed civilians and SAF patrols were
observed walking the streets, which were littered with looted
household belongings. UNMIS members spoke of frustrations over
limits on their movements and even on their reporting that prevent
them from effectively keeping the peace. The AEC delegation also
visited Agok town, where most of the Dinka refugees fled, and spoke
with representatives of international relief NGOs. NGO reps said
two of their biggest immediate needs are the establishment of a
humanitarian "no-fly zone" above the town (i.e., an end to
harassment by SAF Antonovs circling the town), and the need to open
roads north of Abyei to allow shipments of relief supplies. The
team also spoke with representatives of the SPLM/A, and the Dinka
and Messeriya communities. The AEC delegation came away convinced
once again (see reftels) that UNMIS or new Joint Integrated Units
(JIUs) of combined SAF and SPLA troops must be allowed freedom of
movement throughout the Abyei area, as the local situation remains
extremely volatile. SAF forces control the town, but unless they
are replaced by UNMIS forces, the town could be the scene of renewed
fighting by SPLA units to drive them out. END SUMMARY

UNAMIS forces frustrated by controls
2. (U) The high-level AEC delegation -- including GoNU foreign
minister and SPLM polit-bureau member Deng Alor, ambassadors of the
Netherlands, UK, Italy, Norway, France (representing EU Presidency),
and the African Union, a political officer from the U.S. Embassy,
representatives of the NCP, and AEC chairman Derek Plumbly --
arrived in Abyei aboard a Russian-piloted UN helicopter for the
start of a one-day tour of the area. A meeting with UNMIS
commanders and forces opened the day's agenda. Members of UNMIS
spoke of their many frustrations in carrying out their mission,
including the fact that the town had been burned and looted right on
the other side of the fence demarcating their compound. AEC members
were struck by the fact that many of the troops they spoke with had
never been in the town. Special Envoy Richard Williamson was
informed during a tour he made of Abyei on May 30 that only African
members of the UNMIS force in Abyei were being allowed by the SAF to
make patrols into the town, further limiting the ability of UNMIS to
carry out its mission.

3. (U) The UNMIS commander described the situation in Abyei town as
"tense," with SAF soldiers in control. The commander said the town
had been burned and looted by "suspected Messeriya" tribesman (a
charge later denied by Messeriya leaders, but confirmed to
Ambassador Williamson on May 30th by UNMIS). The troops described a
situation where their ability to patrol and monitor the area was
subject to on-again, off-again restrictions by the SAF. Even their
ability to report on what they observe is hampered. One female
African soldier reported that "you're only supposed to report what
is 'comfortable,' otherwise your report can just be thrown away.
And that was a contributing factor in the escalation" of tensions
and violence," she said.

4. (U) Another officer noted that, with "one faction" (SAF) in
control of the town, this amounts to an open invitation for "other
factions" to return to fight them. It would be best if UNMIS were
allowed to take control as a neutral force, he concluded.

Tour of the town: Armed men wander the charred ruins
--------------------------------------------- -------

5. (U) The AEC delegation was then given a drive-through tour of
the town escorted by armored UNMIS vehicles. It was clear that
nearly all of the population had fled. The tour crossed paths with
several SAF foot patrols. Very few women and no children were seen,
and no civilians at all were observed by the Williamson delegation
on May 30th. The dirt streets were littered with large heaps of
looted belongings, mostly beds and chairs, from the traditional
round straw-roofed residences. All high value items had already
been carried away. No vehicles undamaged by the fighting were
observed left in the town, for instance. (Comment: Since the SAF
was clearly in control of the town, the looting had been carried out
with at least their consent, if not outright participation.) Many,
if not most, of the homes had been burned down. The entire market
area in particular was destroyed and lay in ruins. Walking the
streets were civilian men, many armed with firearms or the
occasional spear or ancient sword, or even just a stick. No
civilians were observed in the town at all on May 30th.

Agok town is now a refugee camp

6. (U) Following a one-hour helicopter flight, the delegation saw
firsthand many of the IDP victims of the Abyei fighting at Agok

KHARTOUM 00000822 002 OF 003

town, where many of the Dinka community had fled. (Dinkas tended to
flee south, with the considerably smaller Messeriya IDPs fleeing
north.) Hundreds of refugees milled around the dirt landing strip.
Representatives of the NGO humanitarian relief agencies - some of
whom had fled Abyei themselves - briefed the delegation. For the
time being, the agencies are providing adequate services to the
refugees - each family receives a plastic sheet for shelter, two
mosquito nets, and a ration of food. The agencies are drawing on
provisions they had pre-positioned in the area to the south in
anticipation of a repeat of last year's serious flooding.

7. (U) The relief workers told how they are working hard to locate
about 100 children reported missing by their parents after their
arrival in Agok. Also, about 50 children had arrived unaccompanied.
A further 50 children have now been reunited with their families.
About one-third of the IDPs in Agok are children aged five or

8. (U) The NGO representatives expressed two immediate needs:
First, the need to create a humanitarian no-fly zone over the IDP
camps to end harassment by circling flights of Antonovs of the
Sudanese Air Force. These flights often scatter frightened refugees
back into the bush, making them much harder to assist. Second, the
GoNU must begin allowing relief agencies to move relief supplies in
by road from the north. The area's main road links are to the
north, and the SAF prevents the relief agencies from using that
route. Currently, the agencies have few supplies they can move in
from the south, a much more difficult and expensive route. The
relief representatives stressed that the rainy season had already
begun in the area, gradually putting more isolated groups of
refugees beyond reach of assistance. Another need is for the two
area airstrips to be upgraded so they will be usable during the
rainy season.

SPLM, Dinka leaders make plea for protection

9. (U) At a separate site in Agok, the AEC delegation met with
representatives of the SPLM, SPLA, and other leaders of the Dinka
community. The chief spokesman was Kwal Deng, the brother of SPLM
leader Luka Biong Deng. Deng spoke eloquently and passionately,
saying Dinkas and the SPLA/M (he was apparently speaking for both)
had long worked with the Messeriya community to promote peaceful
co-existence. What had happened in Abyei, he charged, was
deliberately planned by the SAF. The NCP had long declared its
intention of "cleansing" the Abyei area, he said, to leave the
Messeriya in control. Deng and other community leaders spoke
bitterly of the failure of UNMIS forces to protect the population.
The SPLM handed out a position paper urging members of the
international community to demand the immediate withdrawal of SAF
from Abyei, to intervene in Abyei under the UN charter, and for the
GoNU to fully and immediately implement the Abyei protocol and the
ABC border North-South demarcation as stipulated in the
Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

Messeriya Leaders: We were not involved

10. (U) Following another one hour helicopter flight to the town of
Muglad north of Abyei, the AEC delegation next met with leaders of
the Misseriya community. In contrast to Agok, there was no visible
evidence of a refugee community. Messeriya leaders claimed that
local families had provided accommodations for the relatively
smaller number of refugees who had headed north.

11. (U) Messeriya leaders stressed their peaceful intentions,
referring to the Dinka refugees as their brothers who were in dire
need of assistance. Everyone who spoke insisted that Messeriya had
taken no part in any of the violence and looting that had taken
place. After the meeting had formally broken up and the delegation
was heading back to the airstrip, French Ambassador Christine
Robichon scolded the Messeriyap ;Q(Q to
participate in the fighting and the looting.

12. (U) Significantly, Messeriya leaders had no clear answer when
they were asked, repeatedly, what actions needed to take place
before the IDPs could return to a peaceful Abyei. The closest one
came was to say that there were two possible solutions - one
political, between "the two sides," the other "social". Another
said "we ask only that you support us so that things can return to
normal." The meeting concluded with one headman's assertion that "I
am sure we will reach a solution. No Messeriya took part in that

13. (SBU) COMMENT: Abyei was a powder keg waiting to explode given
the close proximity of SAF and SPLA forces and the lack of a true
buffer zone or civil administration in the region to regulate police
and other civic functions. The recent attempt by the GOSS to

KHARTOUM 00000822 003 OF 003

establish a Southern Governor for Abyei, and the NCP attempt to
establish a counter administration through Messeriya proxy forces,
only made the situation more tense. Although the spark that set off
the explosion of violence did not appear to have been planned, and
both sides can share in the blame, the result has allowed the NCP to
sweep the town completely clear of its formerly large Southern

14. (SBU) Comment Continued: The AEC delegates were struck by the
destruction in Abyei, and the resulting human misery that the NGO
community is struggling to address. The delegation did not attempt
to pin down responsibility for what had taken place. Instead, they
asked what needed to be done to stabilize the situation and allow
refugees to return to their homes in a peaceful situation. Dinka,
SPLM and UNMIS sources agreed that UNMIS forces should take over
security in Abyei town to remove the immediate cause for additional
violence. The SPLM (which is to say, the Dinka community
leadership) is adamant that the ABC report should be implemented
immediately as part of a longer-term solution, as called for in the
CPA. As for improving the lot of the IDPs, the NCP seems to hold
all the cards: Only they can concede a no-fly humanitarian zone over
the refugee camps, and only they can allow the NGOs to move in
supplies from the north. During the May 28 meetings, NCP
representatives had very little to say. Embassy has heard that the
NCP now wants to augment the visit with additional meetings in
Khartoum. Embassy will continue to press the case that Abyei
remains a very volatile situation that needs urgent action, by both
parties, to defuse. Providing adequate security in the town so that
IDPs can safely return, either through a new UNMIS mandate or
through the installation of new Joint Integrated Units (JIUs) of
combined northern and southern troops, or both, is a paramount


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