Juba: Seventy northern Sudanese troops were killed and more than 120 are missing from an attack last week by southern Sudanese forces near the disputed region of Abyei, a Sudanese diplomat said late Tuesday, describing a toll that if verified marks one of the bloodiest clashes since the end of Sudan`s civil war.
A U.N. spokesman said he believed the casualty numbers were much smaller.
The south voted to secede from Sudan, Africa`s largest country, this year but the future of the 4,000-square-mile (10,500-square-kilometer) Abyei region, which lies near the north-south border, was left in doubt. The fighting that began last Thursday threatens to unravel a 2005 peace deal and re-ignite a civil war that left more than 2 million people dead.
According to the U.N., southern troops started the clash Thursday by attacking a column of northern troops and U.N. peacekeepers who were moving away from Abyei. The U.N. condemned the attack. A U.N. spokeswoman, Hua Jiang, said Tuesday that no U.N. troops were killed.
Kamal Ismail Saeed, Sudan`s ambassador to Kenya, told a news conference in Nairobi that 197 northern troops were killed or missing after the southern attack. A more detailed statement from his embassy said 70 troops were killed and more than 120 others were missing.
Saeed said the attack caused the Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF, to respond.
"I think that was a serious blow which ended the continuous patience and self restraint of SAF, so it responded in self defense," Saeed said.
But U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that the casualty figures could be lower than reported.
"I think that the numbers are much smaller than that according to the reporting that I`ve seen but ... I don`t know that we have a concrete actual toll," Nesirky said.
He said he understood that once the attack took place "many people in the convoy dispersed and I don`t know that they have been accounted for. If we could get more details, certainly we would want to do that. Clearly, the Sudanese armed forces themselves would want to account for their own people."
Nesirky also said the U.N. has asked for answers from the southern government.
"We`ve asked the government of South Sudan to launch an investigation immediately and hold the perpetrators accountable as attacks on U.N. peacekeepers constitutes war crimes under international law," he said.
He said the U.N. was conducting "more robust and aggressive patrolling" of the region`s main town, also called Abyei, with the support of armored personnel carriers and aerial patrols. He added that 125 U.N. peacekeepers from a reserve company were being airlifted to Abyei on Tuesday.
Northern troops have moved south through Abyei, sending thousands of civilians fleeing. Buildings in the region`s Abyei town have been torched. The U.N. estimated on Tuesday that 25,000 to 30,000 people have fled.