By Jeremy Clarke and Alex Dziadosz
JUBA/KHARTOUM (Reuters) - The northern Sudanese army has full control of Abyei and stopped military operations, state media said on Saturday, as officials from the north and south prepared to meet to defuse tensions over the disputed region.
Northern Sudanese armed forces seized the Abyei region last week, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee and raising fears the north and south could return to full-blown conflict. The move drew sharp international criticism.
Abyei was a major battleground in Sudan's last civil war and has symbolic importance for both sides. The region is used all year by the south-linked Dinka Ngok people and for part of the year by northern Arab Misseriya nomads.
South Sudan is due to secede and form a new country on July 9, and the status of Abyei has remained one of the most contentious issues ahead of the split.
"The Armed Forces on Saturday announced the end of military operations in Abyei following the full control of the area," the state news agency SUNA said, referring to the northern army. The army was asking Abyei residents to return home, it added.
U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) spokesman Kouider Zerrouk said the looting and burning that had broken out in Abyei appeared to have calmed by Saturday, although some was still continuing. Northern troops were still patrolling the main town, he added.
South Sudan's Vice-President Riek Machar was due to travel to the northern capital Khartoum on Saturday to discuss the crisis with officials there, Mangar Amerdid, a spokesman for south Sudanese President Salva Kiir, said in Juba.
"He (Machar) is seeing if there is any way to ease the tension between north and south," Amerdid said.
North Sudanese state and other media said Machar would meet north Sudan's Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha.
Envoys from north and south Sudan were also scheduled to meet in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on Saturday to try to end the crisis, an African Union official said.
'VOLATILE AND TENSE'
UNMIS resumed land and air patrols in the Abyei area on Thursday, spokesman Zerrouk said. It had halted the patrols after fighting began.
He said Abyei was calmer than earlier in the week, but sporadic gunshots could be heard as recently as Friday. "The situation remains volatile and tense," he added.
The north Sudanese government sent a message to the U.N. secretary-general saying it had decided to end the UNMIS term on July 9, the state news agency said on Saturday.
Tension rose in Abyei last week after an attack on a convoy of northern soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers that was blamed on southern Sudanese forces.
Khartoum moved tanks into Abyei's main town last Saturday, and has since defied calls from the United States, United Nations and south Sudan's president to withdraw, saying the land belongs to the north.
Entire villages were emptied after the fighting forced tens of thousands of people to flee down muddy roads, many of them without possessions, international organizations say.
Seasonal rainfall coupled with fuel shortages have made it hard to reach areas near Abyei, the U.N. said in a statement, adding it had received reports of harassment and looting of relief supplies by southern forces.
Analysts say a north Sudanese land grab could spark a return to full-blown conflict, a development that would have a devastating impact on the region by sending refugees back across borders and creating a failed state in the south at birth.
Southern Sudanese voted overwhelmingly to secede in a January referendum guaranteed by a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between the mainly-Muslim north and the south, where most follow Christian or traditional beliefs.
In Juba, the southern capital, about 100 people demonstrated on Saturday to pray for those killed in the violence in Abyei.
Southern Sudanese President Kiir said on Thursday there would be no war over the incursion and that it would not derail independence.
(Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa; Writing by Alex Dziadosz; editing by Andrew Dobbie)