05/24/2011 04:44 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2011

Sudan Violence Threatens To Upend Fragile Peace

Africa's largest country is on the verge of reigniting a conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of people and devastated the region over a decade.

Once again, Sudan is being rocked by killing, burning and looting amid accusations of war crimes. Thousands of refugees have fled and a fragile peace accord that ended the continent's longest war in 2005 has been shattered.

The crux of the conflict is the disputed Abyei region, which is claimed by both the north and the south. South Sudan is set to secede and become an independent country on July 9, but Abyei residents were never given a chance to choose their own destiny in a referendum due to a dispute over voter qualifications.

The latest round of violence began last week when southern forces were accused of attacking United Nations peacekeepers, prompting U.N. officials to demand an investigation of potential war crimes. The attacks were part of an ambush of northern troops traveling in a convoy with the peacekeepers, according to the northern government. In retaliation, northern troops embarked on a "horrific" campaign of looting and burning, driving more than 15,000 to flee the area, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice told reporters on Tuesday.

The north's strike on the border town led top Sudanese minister Luka Biong Deng to quit in protest. In his resignation letter to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Deng claimed that there had been "barbaric attacks" on civilians in Abyei.

"I came to a conclusion that the way you are leading Sudan is making you not only a liability to the Sudanese people and your party but also to the continent and indeed to the world at large,” he added.

And to put more pressure on Bashir, U.S. envoy Princeton Lyman warned that the leader may be risking billions of dollars in debt relief.

The U.N. Security Council called for the withdrawal of northern forces on Sunday at a press conference in the capital of Khartoum. Notably missing at the press conference was Bashir, who remains wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes related to his role in the Darfur conflict.

"This crisis was quite predictable because this area has long been a flashpoint for conflict in the Sudan and is greatly contested by both sides,” says David Sullivan, research director at the Enough Project, a nonprofit group that seeks to end genocide. Recent satellite photos have shown a massive buildup of military forces on the northern side of the region, Sullivan told HuffPost, explaining that he believes the attack on the convoy was used as a pretext by the north to move into the region.

"It's part of an effort to change the facts on the ground so that the north would be at an advantage in negotiations," Sullivan adds.

He stressed the need for the international community to put pressure on Bashir to peacefully resolve the situation.

The withholding of debt relief is just one of the tools that can be wielded in that effort: The U.S. has also indicated that Sudan will lose its designation as a state sponsor of terror if the north implements the peace agreement.

"For now, we're concerned," says Sullivan. "It remains to be seen how it will play out. Will the south exercise restraint or respond militarily? Will the north withdraw from Abyei, and what happens if they don't?"