Khartoum: Satellite images indicate a major deployment of military hardware by the Sudanese Army, including helicopter gunships and tanks, near the flashpoint Abyei border region, a monitoring group said on Thursday.
The Satellite Sentinel Project said that, according to the newly acquired images, the introduction of two attack helicopters and at least nine battle tanks within the range of Abyei constituted a major escalation in the military capacity of the northern army (SAF) in the disputed area.
Last month, at least 70 people were killed in Abyei and two villages razed in two days of clashes between fighters from the Misseriya tribe, which supports the Khartoum government, and the Ngok Dinka people, who back the south.
The region`s future is the most sensitive of a raft of issues which Khartoum and Juba are negotiating ahead of southern independence in July.
"The SAF has deployed air and ground attack vehicles in range of Abyei far beyond the capabilities of any units reportedly deployed in the area by the SPLA (southern army)," said Nathaniel Raymond, director of operations at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative for the Satellite Sentinel Project
"This move represents a significant military escalation by SAF forces and represents an additional threat to the human security of civilians in and around Abyei," he added.
The Satellite Sentinel Project, which provided the images, was set up by Hollywood star and rights activist George Clooney in December.
It had already reported armed groups backed by the armies of north and south Sudan reinforcing their positions in the disputed border region in March.
On Friday, US President Barack Obama expressed "serious concerns" over the situation in Abyei, where a referendum was due to be held in January on whether to join north or south Sudan, to coincide with the plebiscite on southern independence.
The Abyei vote was postponed indefinitely, with Khartoum and Juba at loggerheads over whether Misseriya nomads should be eligible to participate.