The UN Security Council on Monday ordered a 4,200-strong Ethiopian peacekeeping force to the disputed Sudanese territory of Abyei in a bid to douse tensions ahead of southern Sudan's split from the north.
The 15-member council voted unanimously for a resolution sending the force to monitor the withdrawal of north Sudan troops who occupied Abyei on May 21. More than 100,000 people have fled.
With fighting also flaring in the neighboring state of South Kordofan, north-south rivalry is again an international concern ahead of southern Sudan's declaration of independence on July 9.
Ethiopia has signaled that the force will be ready to be deployed before the key independence day celebrations in the south, diplomats said.
Abyei, which sits on the border, is claimed by both sides. An African Union-brokered peace accord to demilitarize the territory was reached on June 20 in the Ethiopian capital.
Abyei is now in "utter devastation" according to UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang, who has just been to the territory. Speaking to reporters in Khartoum, she called for a thorough human rights investigation there and in South Kordofan.
Kang told reporters she had seen traditional huts smoldering in Abyei and "looters still roamed among the ruins in the presence of the Sudanese Armed Forces. All the civilians are gone."
Sudan's UN ambassador Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman said Khartoum's forces would withdraw as soon as Ethiopian troops had been deployed.
French UN ambassador Gerard Araud said there was a "robust" mandate for the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei, or UNISFA. He highlighted that human rights abuse investigations would be allowed.
The resolution also orders the force to protect civilians and to "protect the Abyei area from incursions by unauthorized elements."
North and south Sudan fought a two-decade civil war in which two million people died. A 2005 peace accord, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, ended the conflict and allowed for a referendum in January in which the south voted massively to split from the north.
Abyei did not take part in the referendum because the two sides could not agree who should be eligible to vote.
Major worries remain ahead of South Sudan's independence day particularly because of the new conflict in South Kordofan, on the northern side of the border, where northern troops and their allies are fighting forces loyal to south.
Misseriya Arab militiamen on Sunday attacked a train carrying south Sudanese home ahead of the independence declaration, the UN said. One person was killed and four injured.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the UN force in Abyei but demanded an "immediate" ceasefire in Kordofan where the United Nations said that new air bombing attacks had been reported Monday.
"Tens of thousands of people have been driven from their homes, and there are reports of very serious human rights abuses and violence targeting individuals based on their ethnicity and political affiliation," Clinton said in a statement.
"There is just two weeks to go until July 9 and the parties really need to do everything they can to settle the outstanding issues under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement," said Britain's deputy UN ambassador Philip Parham.
These include the final status of Abyei and the sharing of oil revenues from zones which straddle the border and the citizenship of nationals caught on either side of the border.
"To the extent they remain unresolved, the potential for tensions is obviously that much greater, so the harder they can work even over the next two weeks to make progress on those issues, the less likely there are to be damaging tensions," Parham told reporters.
Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes and genocide, is to join UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other international leaders at the south's formal declaration of independence on July 9, Khartoum's ambassador said.