U.S. and African Union Voice Concern About Sudan Clashes

The U.S. and the African Union expressed concern about the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan after planes bombed an oil field in the newly independent southern state and a meeting between the two countries’ leaders was canceled following border clashes.

Jean Ping, the Chairman of the Commission of the African Union (AU), observed “with very deep concern the escalating security situation along the border between Sudan and South Sudan, where there has been an outbreak of fighting between the military forces of Sudan and South Sudan. This includes ground fighting on both sides of the border and aerial bombardment,” Ping said in a statement yesterday.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the fighting “deeply distressing” and urged both sides to work together to halt the violence. “We think that the weight of responsibility rests with Khartoum, because the use of heavy weaponry, bombing runs by planes and the like are certainly evidence of disproportionate force on the part of the government in Khartoum,” Clinton told reporters in Washington yesterday.

Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir called off a planned April 3 meeting with his South Sudanese counterpart, Salva Kiir, because of the fighting, Foreign Ministry spokesman al-Obeid Murawih said yesterday by phone from Khartoum. The leaders were due to meet in South Sudan’s new capital, Juba, to sign agreements on protecting the rights of citizens in both countries and on border demarcation.

Possible Split

“I think it’s possible that there is a split in Khartoum,” Jonah Leff, an analyst with the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “However, Bashir was never comfortable with the idea of arriving on Juba soil, so I doubt he thought twice about canceling the trip.”

South Sudan on March 26 accused Sudan’s military of bombing its forces in the disputed area of Jaw along the border between Unity state and the north’s Southern Kordofan state. South Sudan’s army spokesman, Philip Aguer, also reported fighting around the oil-rich area of Heglig.

Sudanese army spokesman Al-Sawarami Khaled denied on March 26 that his forces attacked Jaw and reported “minor clashes” between the armies.

There was no apparent damage to the oil field that was attacked in South Sudan’s Unity state, the state’s information minister, Gideon Gatpan, said yesterday by telephone. Khaled, the spokesman for Sudan’s army, had his phone switched off when called seeking comment.

Still Welcome

South Sudan’s government spokesman, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, said yesterday Sudan had not yet informed the authorities in Juba of its intention to cancel the summit. Bashir was still welcome, he said.

Benjamin told reporters in Juba that “hawks” within Sudan’s government were responsible for inciting attacks in order to derail the peace process and prevent Bashir from visiting South Sudan to meet with Kiir.

The countries have been embroiled in disputes over oil, borders and citizenship rights since the south gained independence in July, assuming control of three-quarters of the formerly united country’s crude output of 490,000 barrels a day.

The crude is pumped mainly by China National Petroleum Corp., Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional Bhd. and India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd.

Members of al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) are probably bitter about losing control of the oil, Leff said.

“I can imagine that a large proportion of the NCP do not want to negotiate over the riches that they once controlled,” he said. “I would expect for them to continue using aggressive means to recapture the borderlands.”

Two Accords

One of the two accords the presidents had agreed to sign would have required the formation of a joint committee and technical team to manage and implement border demarcation.

Pagan Amum, the south’s chief negotiator, told reporters in Juba on March 25 that the meeting could open the way for a deal to resume crude production, which South Sudan halted in late January after accusing Khartoum of stealing its oil.

Khartoum said it confiscated the crude to make up for fees owed by the landlocked south for use of a pipeline and processing facilities in its territory.

Sudan and South Sudan signed a non-aggression pact last month aimed at easing border tensions and stopping support to militia groups on either side of the border. The agreement has failed to prevent border clashes, and both sides claimed rebel militia groups took part in the March 26 attacks.

‘Continued Fragility’

“What this latest episode does show is the continued fragility of the North-South relationship, and once more demonstrates that even with formal agreements in place, volatile situations can deteriorate very rapidly,” Aly Verjee, a senior researcher with the Nairobi-based Rift Valley Institute, said in an e-mailed response to questions yesterday.

About 1,700 southerners traveling to their newly independent homeland in more than 100 vehicles were trapped in Heglig when fighting erupted along the border, the United Nations’ acting humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, Yasmin Haque, said yesterday in an e-mailed response to questions.

“We have reports of gunshot wounded patients, mostly soldiers, having been received in the Bentiu hospital in Unity today,” she said. “We are trying to confirm if there have been any civilian casualties.”