South Sudan’s army vowed Tuesday to hold their positions in a contested oil field seized from Khartoum’s army, one week after the outbreak of bitter fighting that has raised fears of a wider war.
Despite air strikes and a reported counter-attack by Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) to retake the disputed Heglig oil field, the South’s Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) said it would not withdraw from the battle zone.
“If they advance, definitely SPLA is ready to fight back and repulse them. ... The SPLA is ready for them outside Heglig,” Southern army spokesman Philip Aguer told reporters.
The hostilities are the worst since South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in July, and world powers have condemned the fighting, as fears grow that clashes could spread beyond the current border conflict.
Fighting broke out last month between Khartoum and Juba in the Heglig oil field -- key to Sudan’s already struggling economy, as it supplied around half of its oil production -- before an escalation of violence last Tuesday.
The South has reportedly placed tanks and artillery around oil infrastructure in Heglig, which both sides say belongs to them. Aguer said Khartoum had damaged wells as they sought to dislodge Southern troops by aerial bombardment.
“The border is still fragile, tension is still very high,” Aguer added. “The SAF continue to bomb indiscriminately. ... On Tuesday they bombed one of the oil wells outside Heglig, it is still burning.”
Khartoum has launched a wave of air raids on Southern border areas, killing several civilians and hitting a U.N. peacekeeper base on Monday in the village of Mayom, in the South’s oil-producing Unity state.
The United Nations confirmed the attack, although Sudan denied the air strike.
However, the region appeared calmer Tuesday, with “no reports of fighting so far,” said Gideon Gatpan, Unity state’s information minister.
World powers have also called for restraint and voiced deep concern at the escalating violence.
Khartoum seeks the South’s unconditional withdrawal from Heglig.
But Juba has said it will not pull back unless Khartoum removes its troops from the contested Abyei region nearby, among other conditions.
Leaders on both sides have exchanged angry rhetoric -- accusing each other of starting the violence and of wanting war -- with Khartoum’s parliament on Monday voting the government of South Sudan an enemy, a move dismissed by Juba.
“They have declared war against the people of the Republic of South Sudan ... they have declared jihad war against the infidels of South Sudan,” Southern information minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said Tuesday.
“I think this is a crazy decision. Our position is we consider the Sudanese people as brothers and sisters. ... We don’t see them as an enemy.”
Questions are being raised in Khartoum over how easily Southern forces managed to seize Sudan’s main oil field, dealing another blow to an economy mired in crisis.
Cost of war is not a deterrent
The Sudanese military is already severely stretched in the face of the major insurgency in South Kordofan, a smaller uprising in Blue Nile, and ongoing fighting in the war-ravaged Darfur region.
But Khartoum said on Tuesday the cost of a full-blown conflict with South Sudan would not deter it from recapturing the disputed Heglig oilfield, and that newly tapped oilfields would help to sustain its struggling economy.
Both countries' faltering economies will likely be important factors in the conflict's outcome.
“Despite the high cost of the war, despite the destruction that the war can cause ... our options are very limited. We can tolerate some sacrifice, until we can liberate our land,” Sudan's ambassador to Kenya, Kamal Ismail Saeed, said.
“So from our side, yes, it is expensive but that doesn't deter us or that doesn't stop us from exerting all effort to liberate our land,” he told reporters in Nairobi.
“We have been in war without oil for several years and we survived ... As a matter of fact ... the good news (is) we have developed other sources and fields of oil and that will really compensate our loss.”
Fighting over oil payments and territory has withered the combined crude output of both countries.
The Heglig field is vital to Sudan's economy because it accounted for half the 115,000 barrels per day output that remained in its control when South Sudan seceded in July. The field's output has stopped due to the fighting, officials say.
Some two million people died in Sudan’s 1983-2005 civil war, one of Africa’s longest, before the peace deal that opened the way to South Sudan’s independence.
When the South separated, Khartoum lost about 75 percent of its oil production and billions of dollars in revenue, leaving the Heglig area as its main oil center.