April 22, 2012 (JUBA) – South Sudan’s Vice President, Riek Machar says his nine-month-old country performed poorly on the diplomatic front during its occupation of the contested Heglig oil region on the north-south border, which South Sudan’s army (SPLA) held for over a week before moving out of the area in disputed circumstances over the weekend.
- South Sudan’s vice president, Riek Machar (BBC)
Machar confirmed Saturday that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) had entered Heglig town on Friday night, explaining that the withdrawal of the South Sudan army (SPLA) came as a result of a resolution made by the cabinet in Juba on Friday.
UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon described Juba’s actions as "illegal" with the African Union, European Union and many individual nations who usually support South Sudan strongly calling for them to withdraw, which initially South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir refused to continence.
Machar praised the SPLA and dismissed claims by Sudan’s President Omer Hassan al-Bashir and his Defence Minister Abdel-Rahim Mohamed Hussein that SAF entered the town by force on Friday after three decisive battles on Thursday and Friday that inflicted heavy losses on the SPLA.
South Sudan said it was provoked into occupying Heglig as an act of defence after SAF repeatedly used the area as a base to attack oil-rich Unity State. The SPLA says it repulsed and pursued SAF into the disputed Heglig area resulting in the occupation of the town and its oil fields by the SPLA from 10-20 April.
The two sides have failed to demarcate the border because of disputes over the ownership of a number of areas. Post-independence negotiations on borders and a variety of other issues were called off by Khartoum after the fighting erupted.
Both sides have criticised the process, which is being chaired by Thabo Mbeki’s African Union High Implementation Panel (AUHIP) in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
The SPLA shut down oil production in Heglig last week resulting in the loss of 60% of Sudan’s 115,000 barrels per day of oil production according to a Sudanese official on Saturday.
Footage from Sudan state TV showed major destruction to Heglig town and oil facilities that were still burning.
The safety officer in Heglig oil field Osama Al-Sayed alleged that the SPLA had damaged the pumping station at the main field after destroying the central control room and the oil processing centre.
Any damage will cause a delay in resuming production having a severe knock on effect on Sudan’s already flagging economy. Khartoum is still adjusting to loosing 350,000 barrels per day of oil production when South Sudan became independent last year.
Sudan’s president Al-Bashir has said that he will not let landlocked South Sudan resume exporting its oil through the north. Juba had already stopped production in January in protest against Sudan’s confiscation of southern crude after Juba refused to pay Khartoum’s high transit fees.
Juba has indicated it is willing to return to the negotiating table but Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha suggested that negotiations with South Sudan are pointless and attached certain conditions for that to happen.
Speaking on Sunday to thousands of members of the Presbyterian Church’s congregation in Juba, Machar said the SPLA was always victorious during the two-week confrontation.
The Vice President who was close to the war zone in Unity State’s capital, Bentiu, during the two-week military showdown claimed that SAF lost all the battles on the ground and was continuing to retreat northward despite its intensive aerial bombardments on civilians and SPLA positions, until Juba ordered the withdrawal on Friday.
He however admitted that South Sudan’s diplomatic maneuvers to explain its position on Heglig had been poor. Machar said his country had failed to convince the world that the area belonged to the Dinka ethnic group in South Sudan.
The Vice President said the area is called Panthou in the Dinka language but was renamed Heglig in Arabic by North Sudan after they “illegally” annexed the area in the 1970’s after oil was discovered.
In 2009 Heglig was placed outside Abyei, another disputed oil area, by an international tribunal. However, South Sudan’s information minister Banarba Marial Benjamin has argued that this did not necessarily place Heglig north of the border in Sudan’s South Kordofan State.
Since South Sudan’s independence in July last year Heglig has been administered by Sudan and the revenue from its oil fields gone to Khartoum.
Machar said that it was because South Sudan’s ownership of Heglig was not understood well by the international community, the young country had to out of the area to escape the sanctions threatened by the international community.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) last week threatened to sanction both Sudan and South Sudan, urging the former to stop bombarding South Sudan and the latter to unconditionally pull out its forces from what it said was Sudan’s territory. The African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) equally urged South Sudan to withdraw its forces from the area and stop army Sudanese rebel groups.
Juba, Machar said, did not want to give Khartoum the satisfaction of seeing sanctions being placed on South Sudan less than year after achieving independence from Sudan, which has been under sanctions from the US since 1997 for being a state sponsor of terrorism.
He said the decision to withdraw the SPLA forces from Heglig, which was taken by the cabinet in Juba on Friday in his absence, was a wise one in response to the mounting pressure from the international community.
Machar said his country would now step up its diplomatic offensive over Heglig and seven other disputed areas which he said Sudan had illegally annexed along the 1,800 kilometer border.
South Sudan’s foreign minister, Nhial Deng Nhial, is preparing to post senior diplomats to the UN, EU, AU and to key countries around the world in order to represent and present the interests of the new nation abroad.