BENTIU, South Sudan — As fears mount that Sudan and South Sudan will return to war, a South Sudan army commander here says he does not intend to withdraw troops from the disputed Heglig oil fields and he is prepared to fight.
On April 9 the South Sudan army seized Heglig on the border between the two countries. Heglig, a major oil producing area, is internationally recognized as Sudan’s territory, but South Sudan has always claimed it.
The South Sudan army is now 30 miles north of Heglig and does not plan to pull back, said Maj.-Gen. Mac Paul of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army. He said he is not worried about recent threats by Sudan President Omar al-Bashir that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) will attack to regain Heglig.
“We are not concerned about a SAF counter-attack, we are at war. When you are fighting you can go wherever you need to defend yourself,” he said. Paul said the South Sudan forces could move further into Sudan, but he said they would not advance all the way north to the capital, Khartoum.
Paul said he was not worried about Sudan’s superior air power.
“We’ve been fighting this war for 22 years as guerillas, all those mighty weapons have always been there, it is about who has the will,” he said.
Even as Paul was speaking, Sudan President Omar al-Bashir made belligerent statements that appeared to move the two countries closer to outright war.
Bashir vowed to teach South Sudan a “final lesson by force” for occupying Heglig, reported Reuters.
Wearing a military uniform covered with medals at a large rally in El-Obeid, the capital of Sudan’s North Kordofan province, Bashir threatened the leaders of South Sudan, which became independent from Sudan last year after more than two decades of civil war.
“These people don’t understand, and we will give them the final lesson by force,” said Bashir. “We will not give them an inch of our country, and whoever extends his hand on Sudan, we will cut it off.”
Bashir suggested the looming fight over the oil-producing area would spark a full-scale conflict. “Heglig is not the end, but the beginning,” he said.
A day earlier Bashir said that his government’s “main target from today” was to “liberate” the people of South Sudan from their government, made up mostly of former rebel soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
“We say that it [SPLM] has turned into a disease, a disease for us and for the South Sudanese citizens,” Bashir said, reported the Telegraph. ”The main goal should be liberation from these insects and to eliminate them once and for all. Either we end up in Juba (South Sudan’s capital) and take everything, or you end up in Khartoum and take everything.”
South Sudan’s Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin responded angrily to Bashir’s insults.
“Mr. President, we are no insects and if you are launching your genocide activities to the Republic of South Sudan to kill the people of South Sudan … we can assure you we will protect the lives of our citizens,” reported Reuters.
He did offer one conciliatory gesture, saying that South Sudan was willing to resume talks immediately on all outstanding issues. “The Republic of South Sudan is not in a state of war, nor is it interested in war with Sudan,” he said.
The threatening rhetoric has been matched by troop movements and air strikes. Both sides are moving forces toward the border area, according to the Satellite Sentinel Project, which is monitoring the border area by satellite photos. Last week Sudanese planes bombed Bentiu killing five civilians and just missing a strategic bridge.
The escalating violence and the antagonistic statements have raised the prospect of two African states in outright war against each other for the first time since Ethiopia fought Eritrea in 1998 to 2000.
The threat of war between the two countries has already disrupted nearly all the oil production upon which both countries’ economies depend.
In addition to fighting over which country controls the oil production, the two countries are arguing over transport of the oil. Sudan controls the pipeline which pumps the oil to Port Sudan. But South Sudan objects to how much Sudan charges for use of the pipeline. South Sudan accuses Sudan of siphoning off a large amount of oil passing through the pipeline. In January, South Sudan stopped production of its oil so that it would not have to use the pipeline. There are plans to build a new pipeline which would traverse South Sudan and go across Kenya, but that is years from completion.
Until recently many analysts have said that Sudan and South Sudan would indulge in rhetoric but would not return to war. The two sides fought a bloody civil war that was Africa’s longest running conflict until a 2005 peace pact ended the hostilities. Eventually, under the terms of the peace agreement, South Sudan voted to become independent from Sudan and the new country was born in July, 2011.
The two countries did not agree on the exact border, however, and now they threaten to return to war over control of the Heglig oil fields.
The issue is further complicated by rebel groups which are armed by both Sudan and South Sudan, according to a recent report by the Small Arms Survey.
Bentiu, the provincial capital of South Sudan’s Unity State, sits at a strategic point along the Bentiu sits on the southern banks of the Bahr al-Ghazal River. This city is close to the border and movements of army troops can be seen going to the barracks.