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Thousands flee 'ethnic cleansing' in disputed Abyei region of Sudan

msnbc.com staff and news service reports: Around 80,000 people have fled since the north Sudanese army seized the disputed, oil-rich Abyei region almost a week ago, a southern official said Friday.

Pete Muller / AP

Father Emmanuel Malau stands with internally displaced children who recently fled heavy fighting in Abyei inside his church in the village of Mayan Abun, southern Sudan on May 26. Malau spent days scouring the area in his pickup truck looking for young children who struggled to walk from Abyei to safer areas. Tens of thousands fled heavy fighting in the hotly contested border town earlier this week during with the northern Sudanese military took effective control of Abyei.

Stuart Price / UNMIS via EPA

Homes burning in the center of Abyei town following the 21/22 May attack by the Northern Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), who swept in and seized the area ahead of the south's independence in July.

"The situation is going from worse to even worse," said Dominic Deng, commissioner of the southern Twic country in south Sudan bordering Abyei, where most refugees arrived.

"They are sleeping under the trees. They need food and water ... some people are dying," he told reporters.

Pete Muller / AP

Atong Aken, 9, weeps while clutching a suitcase in a makeshift internally displaced persons camp in Mayan Abun on May 26. While fleeing heavy fighting in the border town of Abyei, Atong became separated from her mother. Heavy fighting and the rapid exodus from Abyei left many families separated.

Stuart Price / UNMIS via AFP - Getty Images

Burnt and destroyed village huts on the outskirts of Abyei on May 24.

On Thursday, John Prendergast, co-founder of the advocacy group the Enough Project, said the international community must intervene to halt the north's actions.

"The ultimate strategy is to ethnically cleanse Abyei, similar to what the regime has done in parts of Darfur," Prendergast said. Continue reading.

Stuart Price / UNMIS via Reuters

Armed men walk past a U.N. peacekeeping mission camp in Abyei town on May 24.

Pete Muller / AP

Internally displaced southern Sudanese sleep on the floor of a church in the village of Mayen Abun on May 26. Tens of thousands of southern Sudanese fled heavy fighting in the hotly contested border town of Abyei earlier this week. More than one hundred people have holed up inside the Mayen Abun church, south of Abyei. Owing to the intensity of the fighting, many people fled their homes with nothing. International humanitarian organizations are moving to supply them with even the most basic of goods and services.

Stuart Price / UNMIS via EPA

Looted items scattered on the ground in front of a deserted homestead on the outskirts of Abyei town on May 24, following an attack and subsequent occupation of the town and surrounding area by the northern Sudan Armed Forces (SAF).