South Sudan has totally shut down oil output in a row with Sudan over export transit fees and will only restart after the two reach a deal covering border security and the disputed Abyei region, its oil minister said on Sunday. Khartoum, meanwhile, said it freed the tankers being held at port to help defuse the dispute.
South Sudan seceded in July under a 2005 peace deal that ended a civil war in which around 2 million people died. The possibility that war could restart over the oil dispute was a “great concern,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said.
Both sides have failed to resolve a long list of disputes including how to disentangle their oil industries, divide debt, mark the poorly drawn border and decide who should control Abyei, a region the size of Connecticut that was a major battleground during the war.
Landlocked South Sudan took about three-quarters of Sudan’s oil output when it broke away, but still needs pipelines running through its northern neighbor to export crude.
Juba depends on oil for about 98 percent of state revenues, while for Khartoum transit fees are crucial since it lost the oil fields themselves last year. That plunged it into a severe economic crisis.
The new U.N. member state said on Jan. 20 it would shut off its roughly 350,000 barrels per day of output after Khartoum started taking some oil in lieu of what it called unpaid fees. The shutdown was “100 percent complete” on Sunday, Minister of Petroleum and Mining Stephen Dhieu Dau told Reuters in Juba.
To restart pumping, he demanded seized cargoes of oil be released, stolen crude returned and for Sudan to cease support for rebel groups in South Sudan, something Khartoum denies.
“Oil production will restart when we have a comprehensive agreement and all the deals are signed,” said Dau, adding that any deal had to be overseen by the international community and linked to the demarcation of the border and control over Abyei.
“Sudan must recognize the 1956 border, which means they must give back all the areas under occupation,” he said, referring to an internal boundary used around the time of Sudan’s independence.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti also said this month that an oil deal would likely depend on an agreement on border and security issues.
Speaking at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ban said he was greatly concerned that the dispute could reignite armed conflict and blamed a lack of political will on both sides. Their two leaders met on Friday but failed to resolve the row.
“(South Sudan) President Salva Kiir and (Sudan) President Bashir should fully engage themselves ... making the necessary compromise and flexibility,” he told reporters.
Industry sources say Sudan has already sold at least one tanker-load of seized South Sudanese crude since the row broke out, but on Sunday Khartoum said it freed other tankers being held at port to help defuse the dispute.
“Today the three ships left. The last one departed at three o’clock (1200 GMT),” foreign ministry spokesman al-Obeid Meruh told AFP.
He added that President Omar al-Bashir had ordered the tankers’ release even though they had not paid fees for using the Red Sea port.
The vessels contained 2.2 million barrels of South Sudanese oil.
China, South Sudan’s biggest customer, buys 5 percent of its crude oil imports from the two.
Many South Sudanese see the oil dispute as a continuation of their struggle against Khartoum. Analysts say Sudan’s demands of $36 a barrel are in well in excess of international norms. South Sudan has proposed a fee of less than $1 a barrel.
Kiir last week accused Khartoum of stealing $815 million worth of crude oil since December, largely by blocking four ships in Port Sudan and preventing four others from collecting their purchases.
In November, Sudanese officials announced the country would take 23 percent of the South’s vital oil exports as payment in kind during the fee dispute.
Sudan meanwhile accuses Juba of backing rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N) in the border states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan.
SPLM-N rebels in South Kordofan, where fighting broke out in June, said on Sunday they were holding 29 Chinese workers for their own safety after a battle with the Sudanese army. The army freed 14 of the Chinese workers, state news agency SUNA said. No more details were immediately available.
An army spokesman had earlier said rebels had attacked the compound of a Chinese construction company and captured 70 civilians, who the army were trying to rescue.
Tensions have also remained high over Abyei, where Khartoum sent tanks and troops in May. It has since said its troops would leave once a U.N. mission for Abyei (UNISFA), consisting of 4,000 Ethiopian troops, was fully deployed but just under half that number are there now.
Ban urged Bashir to ensure Sudan cooperated with the United Nations to help avoid fresh fighting there.
“We have a serious impediment in the movement of United Nations peacekeepers in UNAMID and UNISFA because of a lack of cooperation,” he said also referring to the joint U.N./Africa Union force in nearby Darfur.
Meruh said the charge was “not correct” and that the government was not restricting the movement of peacekeepers in either region.
Tensions have also been raised over the neighbors still un-demarcated border -- cutting through oil fields -- as well as mutual allegations that each side backs proxy rebel forces against the other.
This week South Sudan signed an agreement with Kenya to build an oil pipeline to a Kenyan port, potentially freeing it from its dependence on exporting oil through Sudan, according to AFP.
However, industry experts have said that building a pipeline could take more than three years and cost as much as $4 billion -- a staggering cost for the South, where oil production is already close to peaking.
South Sudan last week accused Khartoum of bombing its territory, the latest in several reported border attacks, in areas where northern refugees are fleeing civil war in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan state.
On Sunday in Southern Kordofan rebels once allied to the South’s guerrilla movement turned official army -- captured 29 Chinese workers after a battle with government forces.