Some 150,000 people have fled their homes since the north Sudanese army seized the disputed, oil-rich Abyei region almost a week ago, a southern official said Friday.
"The situation is terrible — they are running in fear from brutal violence, without shelter," Humanitarian Affairs Minister James Kok Ruea said, according to a report by BBC News.
A U.N. report released Friday said its air and ground patrols found a "heavy presence of armed men," but otherwise the area was empty, the BBC said.
"The air assessment mission flew over 10 villages north and south of Abyei town," the report said. "Burnt tukuls [thatch huts] in several villages were reported."
In a statement on its website, the United Nations Mission in Sudan said humanitarian agencies were gearing up to help the refugees, but their efforts were "compounded by insecurity and looting."
UNMIS spokesperson Kouider Zerrouk said the area as completely deserted.
"Abyei is now a ghost town," Zerrouk said. "The only presence on the ground is SAF (North Sudan's army) and (North Sudan-allied) Misseriya militias."
'People are dying'
Dominic Deng, commissioner of the southern Twic country in south Sudan bordering Abyei, said the situation was "going from worse to even worse" for the refugees.
"They are sleeping under the trees. They need food and water ... some people are dying," he told reporters.
On Thursday, John Prendergast, co-founder of the advocacy group The Enough Project, said the international community must intervene to halt the north's actions.
"The ultimate strategy is to ethnically cleanse Abyei, similar to what the regime has done in parts of Darfur," Prendergast said.
"The international community must respond with more than appeals for calm and mild reproaches. The time has come for serious consequences for the commission of war crimes, or they will continue," he said.
United Nations officials have also expressed concern that North Sudan is trying to "ethnically cleanse" the area in a bid to annex it, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
On Sunday, North Sudan admitted it had sent troops to Abyei to clear out southern soldiers that it said had entered the area, breaking the terms of earlier agreements.
"The Sudanese armed forces control Abyei and are cleansing it of illegal forces," Amin Hassan Omar, a minister of state for presidential affairs, told reporters after meeting the Security Council delegation in Khartoum.
A referendum on the future of southern Sudan was held in January under a 2005 peace agreement that ended more than two decades of civil war between the north and the south. The south voted overwhelmingly to secede from Sudan, Africa's largest country.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said Thursday government forces seemed to have used an attack by southern forces on a convoy of government soldiers from the north last week as a "pretext" to move into the town.
It lies on the border between Sudan's Arab-dominated north and mainly ethnic African south.Story: Sudan: 197 troops killed, missing in attack over disputed region
Both the north and south claim Abyei, a fertile region located near several oil fields.
"There's real concern that the government of Sudan may have taken a decision to continue to occupy Abyei for its own political advantage for an indefinite period," Rice said in a conference call after returning from a Security Council trip to Africa that included visits to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and South Sudan's capital, Juba.
"Everybody is in agreement that this is a very destabilizing and unhelpful development and a violation" of the 2005 peace agreement that ended more than two decades of civil war, Rice said.
Key provisions of the 2005 accord have not been implemented since January's vote to secede, including a referendum to determine whether Abyei remains part of the north or the south, agreement on the north-south borders, and future security arrangements between the two countries.
No return to war
Salva Kiir, the president of Southern Sudan, said Thursday he will not return to war even though the north was reportedly moving thousands of Arab tribesmen into Abyei villages abandoned by tens of thousands of terrified southerners.
Human Rights Watch said Thursday the Sudanese government urgently needed to halt looting and destruction of civilian property by its forces in the town of Abyei and hold those responsible to account.
It also demanded that the government allow United Nations peacekeepers access to the entire Abyei area.
The U.N. Country Team in Sudan said late Thursday that the premises of U.N. agencies and humanitarian organizations in Abyei town have been looted of medical supplies, surgical equipment, 800 metric tons of food which is enough to feed 50,000 people for three months, water and hygiene equipment.
The team said tens of thousands of people who fled Abyei have arrived in southern Sudan and are in need of urgent assistance.
Humanitarian agencies are trying to distribute food and emergency items, the U.N. said. But an unknown number of people have fled into the bush while in Turalei, about 80 miles from Abyei town, 15,000 displaced people are living in the open.
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