JUBA, Sudan (AFP) – A deadly ambush targeting south Sudanese returning from the north for a week-long independence vote clouded the mood of enthusiasm across the south that saw polling hours extended from Tuesday.
Misseriya Arab tribesmen killed 10 south Sudanese civilians and wounded 18 near the border as they were returning from the north, southern internal affairs minister Gier Chuang said on Tuesday.
"A convoy of returnees coming from the north to the south were ambushed yesterday (Monday) at about 5:00 pm (1400 GMT) by armed Misseriya. Ten were killed and 18 were wounded," Chuang told a news conference in the southern regional capital Juba.
The landmark independence referendum, which again saw a big turnout on its third day, has prompted tens of thousands of southerners to return from the north.
|AFP file - A pedestrian walks on an unpaved road in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan.|
Chuang called for the Khartoum government to be held to account for the attack by the Arab nomad tribe, which was a key auxiliary militia of the northern army during the 1983-2005 civil war and is involved in a continuing conflict with pro-southern Dinka in the disputed border district of Abyei.
"The Misseriya belong to a state and that state has to be held accountable," he said.
Misseriya chief Hamid al-Ansari denied the tribe had been involved in any ambush of returning southerners but northern police confirmed they had received reports of an attack.
"How could we have carried out such actions when the United Nations is on the ground between us and the Dinka?" Ansari told AFP.
"On top that, for several days now people returning to the south have been a taking a different route far away from us."
Sudanese police spokesman Ahmed Tahami said: "We have received reports that a convoy of people returning to Bahr al-Ghazal (in the south) was attacked but we have no other details."
Misseriya tribesmen have stopped southerners returning to the south through their areas several times in the past as part of their conflict with the Ngok Dinka over Abyei.
There has been an upsurge of violence in the district in recent days in which the two sides reported losses totalling at least 33 dead since Friday.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday condemned the latest violence, and the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) said it had intensified its patrolling activities in Abyei and was on standby to reinforce its peacekeeping presence if needed.
Ban "condemns the reported loss of life and calls upon the National Congress Party and Sudan People's Liberation Movement leadership to maintain calm and ensure that this issue is resolved through peaceful dialogue," his spokesman said, refering to the ruling parties in Khartoum and Juba.
The head of UNMIS, Haile Menkerios, was in Abyei on Tuesday for consultations with local leaders, a UN spokesman said, while Western governments continued to voice their concerns over the situation there.
"We are monitoring the situation on the ground very closely and urge the people of Abyei and their leaders to exercise restraint," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement.
Tensions in the district have been rising with the launch of the independence vote in the south. Abyei had been due to hold a simultaneous plebiscite on its own future, but it has been indefinitely postponed amid deadlock over who should be eligible to vote.
The Misseriya, who migrate to Abyei each dry season to find water and pasture for their livestock, insist they should have the same right to vote as the Dinka, settled farmers who live in the district all year.
In the south, referendum organisers said the huge turnout seen on Sunday and Monday had been repeated across the region and that polling hours were being extended by an hour for the remaining five days of voting.
The huge crowds still queueing to cast their ballots at the end of the original 8:00 am to 5:00 pm voting hours had left many polling stations struggling to cope over the first two days.
The referendum commission's number two Chan Reec said figures were only available from less than half of polling stations but that at those centres alone, nearly a million of the 3.75 million people registered in the south had already voted.
The prospect of secession by the south had sparked fears of a wider break-up of Sudan, which has experienced other rebellions in the war-torn western region of Darfur and also in the east, where a 12-year uprising ended with a still-fragile peace agreement in 2006.