Women and children fled en masse from a disputed flashpoint town between north and south Sudan after fighting this week killed more than 100 people, officials said Thursday.
Abyei has long been seen as the major sticking point between the north and south, which voted to secede in January and is on course to become the world's newest country in July.
Abyei had been promised a separate self-determination vote, but its future is now being negotiated by officials from the north and south.
"Now all the women and children have evacuated the town. They have moved south because they expect more fighting in the town," said Father Peter Suleiman, a Catholic priest who spoke to the Associated Press by phone from Abyei town on Thursday morning.
Col. Philip Aguer, the spokesman for Southern Sudan's military, said more than 70 people were killed in fighting between Sunday and Tuesday. Aguer said that armed members of the Arab cattle-herding Misseriya tribe, militia fighters and northern army forces attacked several villages north of the town of Abyei.
Aguer said the southern government blames the north's Sudanese Armed Forces and the government of Sudan President Omar al-Bashir for the violence.
"The attackers have occupied many villages north of Abyei and maybe their intent is to move southward so this is why people are fleeing," Aguer said.
Fighting continued Wednesday in the village of Maker Abyior, 10 miles (15 kilometers) north of Abyei town.
Aguer said he did not know the death toll from that fighting, but an international official in Abyei told The Associated Press of witnessing 33 bodies buried in a mass grave late Wednesday.
Most of the dead were wearing police uniforms, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Hua Jiang, a spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Sudan, confirmed that U.N. staff in Abyei had witnessed the mass burial of 33 people from Wednesday's fighting.
She said about 300 women and children fled Abyei south to the town of Agok, where some 60,000 Abyei residents had fled in 2008 when northern Sudanese army forces and allied militias razed the town.
The top government official in Abyei, Deng Arop Kuol, said the armed attackers from the north are members of the Sudan Armed Forces, the northern military. He said the northern forces are using heavy machine guns, and that Abyei's police force have only rifles.
"People will still fight back. Even if you have a stick and the other has gunfire. You will have to fight back," he said.
The latest violence comes as leaders of Sudan's north and south are meeting in Ethiopia to discuss issues like border demarcation and wealth sharing after the oil-rich south declares independence in July.
The future of Abyei, which both the northern and southern governments stake claims to, is widely considered to be the one issue that could prevent the peaceful breakup of Africa's largest country.
According to the terms of the 2005 north-south peace deal, the agreement that ended more than two decades of civil war, the northern and southern armies are not to deploy around Abyei.
A 2009 Hague ruling on the contested boundaries of the territory has not been implemented, and the latest security agreement between north and south over Abyei was signed in January but has not been fully implemented.
In January, violence between the Misseriya and pro-southern police left more than 60 people dead just before voting began in the south's independence referendum.
The ability of the Misseriya to graze their cattle through the fertile Abyei region and to the River Kiir is in question due to the ongoing violence, which the pro-southern Ngok Dinka people of Abyei accuse the Misseriya and the northern government of starting.