Sudanese President Omar Bashir risks losing an opportunity to get his country off a U.S. terrorist list and normalize relations with Washington, if he continues ignoring demands to withdraw troops from the disputed oil-rich province of Abyei, a senior U.S. official said Monday.
Northern Sudanese officials, meanwhile, vowed to hold on to all the territory taken when troops entered Abyei on Saturday to "restore peace." The U.N. Security Council also demanded that Sudan withdraw from the province.
The international aid group Doctors Without Borders said almost the entire population of an Abyei border town has fled. Armed looters set fire to parts of the town, and the violence has prevented U.N. peacekeepers from patrolling the region.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke to The Washington Times on background citing the sensitive nature of the developments, said the United States had offered a road map to the Bashir government for delisting.
It required Sudan to meet specific conditions to get off the list of state sponsors of terrorism and regain full diplomatic relations with the United States. The criteria included a political settlement for Abyei.
"Abyei was probably the most important element of [the conditions] if you had to rank them, and [recent developments in Abyei] are a serious setback," the U.S. official said.
A referendum for southern independence in January resulted in a majority of southerners — mostly Christians or followers of traditional African religions — backing secession from the Muslim-dominated north.
Recent assessments by U.S. intelligence agencies have found that Sudan is no longer sponsoring terrorism. The country had supported al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups. Washington recalled the U.S. ambassador in 1998 over Sudan's poor human rights record and support for terrorism.
Fatahelrahman Ali Mohamed, deputy chief of mission at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, said it is "unfair" for the Obama administration to link the removal of Sudan from the terrorism list to Abyei.
"Our country is ready and committed to work with the United States, but it is not helpful if the U.S. is perceived as being tilted toward the south," he added. "The Sudanese military forces went into Abyei to restore peace."
The north and south both claim Abyei province, and some observers fear the ongoing unrest could spark a conflict like the one that engulfed Sudan for two decades and claimed the lives of nearly 2 million people.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, warned over the weekend that Sudan "stands ominously close to the precipice of war."
John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group based in Washington, said now is a "classic war-or-peace moment" in Sudan.
"The north and south face critically important choices. But the U.N. Security Council, led by the U.S., has a major role to play," he said.
"If the response is strong, using all tools available to have the Khartoum regime immediately remove its forces, war can be averted. But for how long?"
However, U.S. and Sudanese officials, from the north as well as the south, downplayed fears of a bigger conflict.
The senior U.S. official noted that northern forces easily pushed out southern troops from Abyei and that the south lacks the ability to respond to northern aggression.
"I dont think that the south is prepared for a full-scale war. That said, I don't think the north is, either," he said, describing the northern Sudan Armed Forces as a "broken institution."
Enoch Awejok, acting head of the Southern Sudan mission in Washington, agreed that there was "no opportunity for war."
Northern and Southern Sudanese officials blame each other for the violence.
"Neither side is blameless," said the U.S. official. "Our first order of business is calming them down and getting them to talk to each other."
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