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Diplomacy in Action

Briefing to the Press on Violence in Abyei

Special Briefing
Princeton Lyman
Special Envoy for Sudan 
Washington, DC
May 23, 2011


MS. FULTON: Good afternoon, and welcome to the State Department. Today, it’s our great pleasure to have with us again Ambassador Princeton Lyman, our special ambassador to the –for Sudan issues, to talk to you about the violence in Abyei, the recent violence in Abyei. Without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Ambassador Lyman. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR LYMAN: Thanks very much and thanks for coming. As many of you know, we’ve had quite a situation develop over the last few days. There was an incident on May 19th in which Southern forces attacked a UN convoy that was carrying Northern soldiers to the town called Goli. And that convoy was attacked; some people were wounded, and it produced what we feel is an extremely disproportionate response by the Government of Sudan. They basically invaded Abyei and they have now taken over most of Abyei. They have taken over Abyei town. The administration has had to flee. Most of the people in Abyei town have fled south. They virtually – the government virtually occupies Abyei.

This is a very serious violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and it certainly jeopardizes the process of negotiation that had been underway to resolve the remaining issues before the South becomes independent on July 9th.

We have been – the U.S. has been very heavily engaged over the last several days and nights in talking to the parties, in talking to regional leaders, talking to the United Nations, to the Africa Union, and others, with several major points.

First of all, we feel that the attack on the UN convoy was deplorable and wrong, but we feel the response of the government was disproportionate and irresponsible. We think those forces should be withdrawn; the civilian administration, which President Bashir unilaterally dissolved, should be recreated; and we have urged that President Bashir and Vice President Kiir, who is head of the Southern Sudan administration, immediately come together and calm this situation down and restore the level of cooperation they talked about after the January 9th referendum. They have not been meeting recently and so far have not been in direct touch, and we feel that’s an extremely important thing for them to do.

Now, it happens that the UN Security Council was visiting Sudan at this very time. In fact, they were scheduled to go to Abyei but, of course, could not under the circumstances. They were in Khartoum yesterday and they issued a statement which I hope you have been able to see, basically saying some of the same points that the White House said Saturday night condemning both the attack on the UN convoy but condemning in particular this overreaction and this occupation of Abyei and urging that the troops be withdrawn, that the two leaders meet immediately, that they go back to the negotiations under the CPA.

Others have been involved. The AU chief mediator, former President Mbeki, has seen President Bashir. He’s seen President – Vice President Kiir today. And we are trying to bring this crisis under control. It’s the most serious one since the attack on Abyei in 2008, and we feel that both sides must restore calm and cooperation between them.

Ironically, this all took place just as fairly productive discussions were going on between the two parties on the economic issues between them. They had been going on in Ethiopia at this very time. And it just indicates that there’s so much to be done and so much negotiation that has been planned and is underway, that this crisis really calls into question how those negotiations can be finished on time in the right spirit.

So let me stop there, and I’d be happy to answer your questions. I’ll put you in charge.

QUESTION: Can you confirm or deny reports that the North is repopulating the area of Abyei?

AMBASSADOR LYMAN: We know that people from the Misseriya have been seen in Abyei town. Whether they’re coming in in the wake of this invasion or actually settling, it’s much too to get a fix on that. But since the takeover just happened over the weekend, it seems a little preliminary to make a judgment like that.

QUESTION: The White House statement over the weekend said that they thought that this situation may affect the process of normalization between Khartoum and the United States. Could you elaborate on that and discuss maybe further what other leverage the United States specifically might have to get them to pull back?

AMBASSADOR LYMAN: No, I’m glad you raise that, because in our roadmap toward normalization, it includes specifically a resolution of the Abyei problem, which has to be a negotiated solution, and it involves full implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. So this action complicates both of those conditions, and what it means is that our ability to move toward normalization is going to be complicated as well.

We had started the process, as you know, of looking at how to take them off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. We’ve been working with the World Bank and others on the debt situation. We’ve been looking at the prospect of naming a full ambassador after July 9th in Khartoum. All of these are important steps in normalization. They can’t be fulfilled if we don’t have a successful CPA.

QUESTION: And how will these steps be affected by the occupation of Abyei?

AMBASSADOR LYMAN: Well, the point is that these are all steps toward normalization. If we don’t have a successful completion of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, if we don’t have Abyei being negotiated rather than occupied, it’ll be hard to move forward on those items because that’s part of the roadmap. So you can’t complete the roadmap if you can’t complete these conditions.

MS. FULTON: Next question.

QUESTION: What about the status of the referendum? When can it happen, how can it happen, and with the evacuation or fleeing of so many residents of Abyei, how can that be actually accomplished anytime soon?

AMBASSADOR LYMAN: Well, the referendum had been – had not taken place because the two sides could not agree on who would be the eligible voters, whether it would be primarily the Ngok Dinka or whether the Misseriya would have the right to vote. And because of that difference and many, many meetings to try and resolve it, attention had turned to an administrative solution, whether the two principals, President Bashir and Vice President Kiir, could come to a negotiated solution on Abyei.

President Mbeki, the former South African president who leads the AU negotiation, had put several options, administrative options, to the two presidents some months ago. They were unable to agree on any of them and turned back to the international community and said, “Can you come up with some other ideas?” And in fact, we have been working on trying to develop a new proposal for them, and this obviously makes that more difficult to do. But the attention had turned from the referendum to see if there was an administrative solution.

QUESTION: I was wondering if the U.S. has any indications about movements of either arms or more soldiers that would back up the more widespread suggestion that these two sides are actually on the verge of going back to war. Do you think that that’s a realistic threat given where we are now?

AMBASSADOR LYMAN: I think the danger of further conflict in Abyei is serious. There is some fighting going on now down toward the southern border where Southern forces are still inside Abyei and are being – are fighting South – Sudanese armed forces. So the danger of further clashes is very great. I don’t think that means that they’ll go to general warfare between the two, but any kind of warfare, and especially over in area – an issue as emotional and difficult as Abyei, is a very dangerous prospect.

QUESTION: Can you talk about U.S. contacts with the parties? Do you yourself plan to head out there?

AMBASSADOR LYMAN: The Secretary of State, Denis McDonough of the National Security Council, myself, Johnnie Carson, our assistant secretary for Africa – we’ve all been in contact with parties and with regional leaders constantly over the last several days. And of course, as you know, Ambassador Susan Rice is there with the UN Security Council, and of course, we have chargés in both Khartoum and Juba, and everybody’s been involved in all of this. I am scheduled to go out to the region this week. I haven’t worked out the exact day, but I will be going out this week.

QUESTION: Will that include Sudan? I’m sorry, you said to the region --

AMBASSADOR LYMAN: Yes, to Sudan. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: -- and Sudan was in the region. I wanted to make sure.


QUESTION: Do you know who specifically Secretary has spoken to, and then can you tell us who you –

AMBASSADOR LYMAN: She spoke to Vice President Taha. Denis McDonough spoke to Foreign Minister Karti. She – the Secretary spoke to Vice President Kiir. I spoke to Vice President Kiir. John Kerry – Senator Kerry has also been making calls and issued a statement today, which – or yesterday, which you may see. So there have been a lot of calls.

MS. FULTON: Any further questions? Okay. Thank you very much for joining us.

AMBASSADOR LYMAN: Thank you all.

PRN: 2011/816

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