TURALEI, Sudan (Reuters) - Alel Bol fled with four of her six children when armed northerners on motorbikes roared into her home in Sudan’s contested Abyei border region and, she said, bombs started falling from the sky.
On Friday, she was still waiting for news of the other two children as she and tens of thousands of her compatriots took refuge in villages inside south Sudan, many sleeping on the bare earth under trees, plastic sheets and torn tent fabric.
About 80,000 people have fled since the north Sudanese armed forces seized oil-producing Abyei almost a week ago, a southern official said, doubling previous estimates of the displaced.
“I saw the attackers ... I saw their guns. They were even bombing from the sky,” Bol said beneath the baking sun in Turalei, about 130 km (80 miles) away from Abyei town. “I made it here with four of my children, but two are missing.”
Both Sudan’s mostly Muslim north, and the south, where most follow Christian and traditional beliefs, claim Abyei — a battleground in a north-south civil war that ended in 2005.
The north’s move last week sparked an international outcry and raised fears a land-grab could return Sudan to full-blown conflict, which could have a devastating impact on the region by sending refugees back across borders and creating a failed state in the south.
Northern Sudanese forces also destroyed a bridge along the road from Abyei town to Agok, near Abyei’s southern border, on Thursday, U.N. spokeswoman Hua Jiang said. A spokesman for the northern army said he could not comment on the report immediately but would look into it.
The attack came at a highly sensitive time for Sudan, just seven weeks before south Sudan is due to secede as an independent country, taking its oil reserves with it.
Southerners voted for independence in a January referendum agreed under the 2005 peace deal that ended the last civil war.
Deng Niwol, a 14-year-old boy, said he ran away from his village south of Abyei as soon as he heard the gunshots. “No one is left in the village. My family was eleven people. Some are here, some are not yet,” he said.
Thousands of men, women and children, many of them without possessions, crowded into Turalei in the south’s Twic county.
Many sought shade from the sun beneath trees while United Nations staff handed out sorghum and water. Local officials appealed to visitors for more help.
“The situation is going from worse to even worse,” Dominic Deng, commissioner of Twic county, told reporters in Turalei.
“They need food and water ... some people are dying.”
He said some 80,000 people had fled Abyei since the fighting started. The United Nations had previously put the number of refugees at up to 40,000.
Tensions mounted in the region last week after an attack on a convoy of northern soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers that was blamed on southern Sudanese forces.
Khartoum moved tanks into Abyei’s main town and has since defied calls from the United States, United Nations and south Sudan’s President Salva Kiir to withdraw, saying the land belongs to the north.
Kiir said on Thursday there would be no war over the incursion into Abyei and it would not derail independence. But the region remains one of the most contentious issues in the countdown to the split.
Entire villages have been emptied after widespread looting and shooting broke out following the advance of northern armed forces into Abyei, international organisations say.
A Washington-based monitoring organisation, Satellite Sentinal Project, said images and analysis indicated that the northern army and irregular forces earlier this week loaded vehicles with items apparently taken from homes.
“The irregular payloads apparently present on the vehicles heading away from Abyei town are consistent with the photographs and reports of people from northern Sudan looting items left behind by tens of thousands of civilians who have fled the town,” it said.
Writing by Ulf Laessing and Alexander Dziadosz in Khartoum; Editing by Andrew Heavens