A DUSTY little town in central Sudan which sits above more than a quarter of the giant African country's known oil reserves was probably the planned destination of 33 battle tanks aboard the Ukrainian cargo ship MV Faina, currently hijacked by Somali pirates.
Abyei lies along the 1,250- mile border area between northern and southern Sudan and its fate may yet destroy a 2005 peace agreement and trigger a renewal of the country's 21-year north-south civil war that took two million lives. The Somali pirates may have unwittingly uncovered an enterprise as dangerous, perhaps more dangerous, than their own.
United States and other international warships monitoring the Faina off the northern Somalia coast may be as concerned that the tanks do not reach Sudan as they are to prevent small arms aboard the vessel falling into the hands of myriad Islamic fighters around the Horn of Africa. The pirates are demanding a $20 million (11 million) ransom to release the ship and its cargo.
A spokesman for the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain last night said the Faina's shipment of 33 T-72 Russian-designed tanks and thousands of tonnes of small arms and ammunition had been intended for delivery in Sudan.
The Faina had been due to dock in the Kenyan port of Mombasa. But both the Khartoum-based Sudan Tribune newspaper and Andrew Mwangura, the programme co-ordinator of the Seafarers' Assistance Programme in Mombasa, who tracks pirate attacks, said the tanks and other weapons were to be delivered to the Juba-based South Sudan government. Kenya was only a meant to be a transit point.
Kenya has a long border with and ethnic links to South Sudan, but no border with the north.
While not in breach of international arms control rules, the delivery of the T-72 tanks – in addition to more than 70 delivered last year, according to Mr Mwangura – may endanger Sudan's own Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
China buys most of the 500,000 barrels of oil that Sudan produces each day and it is Sudan's largest supplier of arms. The oil deal with China is worth nearly 5 billion a year to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's government. China has also richly rewarded Mr Bashir's armed forces with weaponry – an arsenal that makes the government of South Sudan keen to arm itself in response.
Abyei has been described by international security experts as "Sudan's Kashmir". In an incredibly complex country, scarred by wars and coups, perhaps no area is more volatile and carries more implications for Sudan's future.
"If the Abyei political crisis is addressed, there is a potential for peace in the entire country," said John Prendergast, a human rights activist on Sudan and a former senior adviser to the White House. "If mishandled, it dramatically increases the possibility that Sudan's current conflicts – from Darfur (in the west] to the south to the east – will explode over the coming few years into a national war with regional implications and historically devastating repercussions for its people."
In response to the seizure of the Faina, Admiral Viktor Mardusin, commander of Russia's Baltic fleet, ordered a Russian missile frigate to Somali waters for more than two months "in order to guarantee the safety of Russian ships". That suggests the tanks and weapons aboard the Ukrainian vessel are of Russian origin.
Ukraine's defence ministry said it was not participating in the arms trade and did not know where the cargo was bound.
The pirate syndicates – there at least five, each about 1,000 strong – operate out of the breakaway statelet of Puntland, far to the north of war-torn Somalia. It declared itself separate from Somalia ten years ago.
A war-torn buffer zone
UNDER British rule, Abyei was a borderland between Arab-dominated northern Sudan and black African-dominated southern Sudan. A peace deal in 2005 ended two decades of war and set up a devolved South Sudan government. An independence referendum is due in 2011. In a clear attempt to annexe Abyei and its oil riches, President al-Bashir sent in the army last May to take on the southern militia, the Sudan People's Liberation Army. Abyei town was largely razed and 60,000 people fled, of whom at least 50,000 are still living in temporary shacks.
The thwarted tank delivery suggests South Sudan fears more attacks by the Khartoum government, in which, confusingly, it is represented.
Both sides have agreed to let the international Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague resolve the Abyei dispute, but a ruling is unlikely before next year.