Khartoum/Juba – Tens of thousands of people fled as north Sudanese militias accused of helping seize the contested Abyei border region over the weekend moved further south, the United Nations said on Wednesday.
Armed groups, thought to be northern militias, also opened fire on four UN helicopters in Abyei on Tuesday, a UN spokeswoman said.
North Sudan sent tanks into Abyei, a central, oil-producing region claimed by north and south Sudan, on Saturday, sparking international outrage and accusations of war crimes by south Sudan.
The move came at a highly sensitive time for Sudan, less than seven weeks before the country's south is expected to declare independence from the north, as part of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war.
Abyei was a key battleground in Sudan's last civil war and a symbolic emblem for both sides. The region is used all year round by the south-linked Dinka Ngok people and for part of the year by northern Arab Misseriya nomads.
Analysts fear further north-south fighting over the region could spark a return to full-blown conflict, a development that could have a devastating impact on the surrounding region.
Thousands of Abyei residents initially fled to the town of Agok, just over the border into south Sudan, said aid groups.
The UN and agencies said up to 40,000 had now been forced to leave their homes and were moving deeper into south Sudan.
"There are enormous numbers of people now on the road from Agok to Turalei, on muddy roads. Many kids need to be treated for dehydration," Doctors without Borders program manager Gustavo Fernandez said.
Misseriya militias started pushing further south after people left the region's main settlement Abyei town, said UN spokeswoman Hua Jiang.
"There are reports that they are moving south," she said.
Southern army spokesman Philip Aguer accused the north of using the Misseriya to carry out a land-grab ahead of the separation of the south.
"Misseriya are being transported by SAF (the northern army) to Abyei. They want to claim the land," he told Reuters.
A total of 14 rounds were fired when the United Nations helicopters took off from a UN compound in Abyei town on Tuesday but they landed safely, Jiang said.
Jiang said Misseriya militias supported by Khartoum were probably responsible for the attack.
She added that fighting and looting – some of which targeted supply bases of UN agencies – had died down.
Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir defied US, UN and other calls to pull back, saying Abyei belonged to the north. "We will not withdraw from it," he said in Khartoum on Tuesday.
The north's show of force could shake a fragile political balance that has held in Africa's largest country since the 2005 deal ended the civil war that left millions dead.
It could also delay the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between north Sudan and the outside world.
The United States on Monday ruled out dropping it from a terrorism list and restoring Washington's ambassador to Khartoum if it continues to occupy Abyei.