The Struggle for Abyei (AUDIO)

06/02/2011 11:48 am ET | Updated Aug 02, 2011

With South Sudan little more than a month away from independence, the northern Sudanese army has occupied Abyei, a disputed territory that sits on the north-south border, forcing thousands of residents to flee, increasing antagonism between North and South, and risking renewed conflict.

The local dispute in Abyei involves two communities, the Ngok Dinka--traditionally allied with the South--and the nomadic Misseriya, who graze cattle in Abyei during the dry season. A special referendum was to decide whether Abyei remained a special administrative unit within the North, or became part of the new South--but it did not take place, deepening anxiety among the communities and hardening their positions.

In recent years, the dispute has become increasingly politicized and assumed a national significance. Most recently, it has been used by political elites as a bargaining chip in a broader set of negotiations that will define the relationship between North and South beyond the July 9th partition.

Rather than a clear move to war, Khartoum's capture of Abyei may be seen as primarily about influencing the endgame in Abyei and strengthening the North's hand at the negotiating table. Nonetheless, elevated tensions and the presence of armed forces and proxies risks new conflict on the eve of Southern Sudan's long-awaited independence. I spoke recently with Zach Vertin, Crisis Group's Sudan Analyst, about the crisis. Listen to our conversation below.