Source: Reutersrichard_williamson.jpg

KHARTOUM, May 31 (Reuters) - Burned and looted huts stretch as far as the eye can see in Sudan's oil-rich town of Abyei, now empty of civilians, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Richard Williamson, said on Saturday.


Williamson, who toured Abyei on Friday, told Reuters he saw "scorched earth" devastation in the town where heavy fighting this month between northern and southern Sudanese troops sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing. "It was really like an apocalypse. People were gone ... I saw no civilians," Williamson said by telephone from Darfur in Sudan's west, where he was meeting local leaders.

"Ninety percent of the huts had roofs burned off. There were clothes scattered here and there. It was just devastation," he said. "Whole neighbourhoods were destroyed." Northern and southern leaders have blamed each other for starting the fighting in the central town where more than 20 northern soldiers and an unknown number of civilians were killed. Sudan's former north-south foes signed a peace deal in 2005 to end two decades of civil war fought along ethnic, religious and ideological lines and complicated by oil. But they have been at odds over its implementation, and both sides covet Abyei. Williamson said he had heard estimates of the death toll in Abyei of between several dozen up to 100 civilians.

He said the Abyei fighting was also followed by looting by what appeared to be Misseriya tribesmen. "It appears the looters would come in, take whatever was of value, and burn the hut as they left," he said. "It's a shame looters were allowed to go on so long." INTERPOSITIONAL FORCE Williamson said he thought that an "interpositional" force was needed to prevent north-south violence from erupting again in Abyei, and he would bring that up in talks with Khartoum authorities in the coming days. "The parties have to disengage.

There has to be an interpositional force to keep the parties apart," he said. He gave few details of what he had in mind. "Ultimately it has to be acceptable to both Khartoum and (the southern capital) Juba." Abyei, on Sudan's yet undecided north-south border, has been a main point of contention since the peace accord and the sides have not agreed on borders or a local government. Under the peace deal, Abyei will choose to join the north or south in 2011 when the entire south will vote on secession. Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said on Friday his government had proposed a joint north-south administration for Abyei, and his vice president was discussing the issue with southern President Salva Kiir. Thousands of United Nations peacekeepers are in south Sudan under the terms of the 2005 peace deal and have a compound in Abyei, a town close to oilfields that produce up to half of Sudan's 500,000-barrel a day output. Williamson said he saw occasional patrols of northern soldiers in Abyei and that what was needed now for Abyei was for stability to take hold. "What I saw reinforces our view that it is critical to return security to this area," he said. Otherwise the possibility remains that a small incident in Abyei "unintentionally can spin out of control". (Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Robert Woodward)

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