March 26, 2012 (KHARTOUM) – The Sudanese government on Monday announced that president Omer Hassan al-Bashir’s scheduled summit with his southern counterpart Salva Kiir on 3 April has been cancelled in wake of the most serious confrontation between the armies of the two neighbouring states on Monday, since partition in July last year.
- South Sudan president, Salva Kiir announces SPLA control of Heglig, March 26, 2012 ( Photo Larco Lomayat)
On Monday Kiir claimed that the military escalation was provoked by Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) coordinated aerial attacks on Jau and Pan Akuach followed by a ground forces assault against another area called Teshwin.
"This morning the Sudanese Air Force came and bombed our areas in Unity State but the [Sudan People Liberation Army] SPLA forces fought back and took control of all their positions,” Kiir told delegates of his ruling Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM) who convened in South Sudan’s capital of Juba.
"After this intensive aerial bombardment our forces were attacked by Sudan Armed Forces and militia,” he added.
The former rebel-commander-turned-president said the SPLA was able to stop SAF advancement into the South Sudanese territories. Kiir went on to say that his country’s army managed to pursue SAF units all the way into oil-rich town of Heglig.
He claimed that in the course of today’s battles Heglig fell under the control of SPLA.
"They attacked our forces and our forces were able to repulse them and they ran away. The last information that came to me was that our forces have also taken over Heglig”, said the South Sudanese president, amid ululating sounds and chants of “SPLA Oyee, SPLA Oyee”.
Kiir underscored that his country has long been convinced that Heglig belonged to South Sudan but that he was willing to get it back legally and through negotiations.
"Khartoum must blame the existing groups from within it that want to drag the two countries into war," Kiir said before adding that SPLA’s takeover of Heglig was necessitated by the current situation.
"We said many times that we do not want war but they wanted it and we did not intend to recover Heglig by force but through peace and law but they wanted [a show of] power so [we] let them see it" Kiir added.
But SAF spokesman, al-Sawarmi Khalid Sa’ad, while confirming fighting on the borders of Sudan’s South Kordofan State and South Sudan’s Unity State, said the clashes were "limited" and carried out by the SPLA as well as fighters from Darfur rebels the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
Sa’ad in his initial brief statement said that JEM was tasked with infiltrating Heglig to target an army position outside the oilfields while SPLA clashed with SAF in other parts of the borders.
Later the SAF spokesman issued a detailed statement saying that at 8am a small SPLA force crossed into Sudan’s at Teshwin where they asked to meet with the commanding officer to discuss what they claimed was "Sudanese intentions to carry[out] an incursion" inside South Sudan.
When SAF’s commanding officer came out to meet the SPLA force, the latter withdrew and came back at 2pm with two battalions and launched an attack on SAF’s contingent stationed at Teshwin, the statement said.
SAF fought "bravely" after which it retreated 10 kilometers north of the international borders, Sa’ad added. After that the SPLA leadership ordered JEM units harboured by Juba to move in and take part in the assault, he said.
"Our forces managed to defeat the attack [launched] on two axes" Sa’ad said, and in the process destroyed two T-55 tanks, six armored vehicles with mounted guns and rocket launchers.
The military spokesperson said scores of SPLA fighters were killed after which they withdrew back into South Sudan, while SAF was making preparations to expel the "remnants of aggressors" in the area.
Philip Aguer, the spokesman for the SPLA, also confirmed the fighting, adding that when speaking to ground troops at 5pm on Monday evening, the conflict was ongoing. He said there were currently an unknown number of casualties and that the conflict was “an act of self-defense” on Juba’s part.
He contradicted what Kiir said about SPLA controlling all of Heglig but said that parts of the area were now under control of the southern army.
"After repulsing the attack, the SPLA pursued the withdrawing SAF force and they captured two bases of SAF between Heglig and Teshwin," the SPLA said.
“We still commit ourselves to all the security agreements between us. Despite all this fighting we are committed to peace," he added.
In Khartoum Abdullah Masar, the Information Minister who is also the government’s spokesperson, dismissed South Sudan claims saying that Kiir’s remarks on occupying Heglig "reflected extreme hatred towards Sudan and its people and the Armed Forces".
Masar added that the recent agreements signed with South Sudan in Addis Ababa and last week’s visit by a high-level delegation from Juba to Khartoum was "deceptive and misleading".
Multiple sources in Heglig speaking to Sudan Tribune said that clashes are ongoing around the area and that gunfire can be heard but denied that SPLA has taken control. They said that the SPLA appears to be approximately six kilometres outside of Heglig suggesting that it could launch a fresh assault at night.
Oilfields workers have been evacuated while SAF has taken positions inside the town in preparation for a possible attack.
The attacking forces appeared to have targeted an army garrison close to Heglig, the sources said, leaving two tanks destroyed. They added that the assailants overlooked the oil pumps and focused on SAF units.
Last week the SPLM Secretary General Pagan Amum led a delegation visited Khartoum to invite their "brother" Bashir to the summit with Kiir. Bashir gave the OK for the visit but officials in Khartoum later that cautioned that this is a preliminary approval and that the final decision has yet to be made.
The visit and the softened tone of both sides following the framework accords signed earlier this month on borders and nationality heightened hopes that there could be a thaw in relations soon after months of heightened tensions.
On Monday the Sudanese 2nd Vice-President al-Haj Adam Yusuf, in a live TV program stressed that the repercussions of the Heglig attack does not allow for the visit to take place and accused South Sudan of plotting to control Heglig from the very beginning to prevent Sudan from using the oil wells.
Yusuf warned that any attack on Sudan’s territory will be dealt with swiftly and emphasised that the attack will not pass lightly even if Juba makes a formal apology.
"If our armed forces are in the field fighting now then there will be not talk about negotiations until the situation is settled and if we are forced to go to war we must fight back" he added.
UN CALLS FOR CALM
In New York, the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon pleaded for calm.
The statement attributed to UN chief said that he is "deeply concerned" about the military clashes and called on the two countries "to fully respect and implement the agreements they have already reached on security, border monitoring and Abyei".
Ban also urged the parties "to utilize to the fullest extent existing political and security mechanisms to peacefully address their differences".
He welcomed "the spirit of cooperation recently shown by the Governments of Sudan and South Sudan in addressing outstanding post-secession issues" and called for holding the Bashir-Kiir summit as planned.