updated 4/7/2011 6:48:43 PM ET 2011-04-07T22:48:43

Helicopter gunships and tanks have been deployed by Sudan's military near the disputed region of Abyei, a region that could spark renewed conflict between the north and south, a U.S. group said Thursday. Thirteen people died elsewhere in tribal violence.

Southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly in January to secede from the north, and is slated to become the world's newest country in July. But the region of Abyei is claimed by both sides, and both militaries have been building up resources around the central region.

The Satellite Sentinel Project is an initiative begun by actor and Sudan activist George Clooney that relies on satellite imagery.

The group said that the northern Sudanese Armed Forces have deployed two Mi-24 helicopter gunships and at least nine T-55 tanks about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Abyei's border. Trucks with heavy armor have also been deployed.

"The introduction of heavy air and ground attack capacity by SAF represents a significant buildup of firepower in a tense region," said John C. Bradshaw, the executive director of the Enough Project, a partner in the satellite project.

Last month the group reported that northern-aligned forces had razed three villages near Abyei, a fertile and oil-producing territory that northern cattle herders use to graze their cattle. Bradshaw said the international community needs to use diplomatic pressure to ensure the standoff is resolved peacefully.

The group said incursions into Abyei by both southern and northern forces violate the 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of war.

Abyei had been promised its own independence referendum, but the vote did not take place and the region's future is now being negotiated.

Two populations warily coexist in the fertile land: the Ngok Dinka farmers, who are loyal to the south and want independence from the north, and the Arab Misseriya cattle herders, who graze their herds in Abyei.

The top government official in Abyei, Deng Arop Kuol, said last month he believes the northern government is massing military forces outside the town in order to occupy it and claim it permanently.

Southern Sudan has suffered several bouts of deadly violence since its January independence vote. The latest violence occurred Tuesday between two feuding communities in Lake and Western Equatoria states.

The governor of Western Equatoria, Joseph Bangasi Bakosoro, said gunmen attacked his village Tuesday while authorities from the two states were meeting to find ways of ending hostilities between the communities.


Straziuso reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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