JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — South Sudan's military said it shot down a Sudanese fighter jet Wednesday after two Sudanese military planes dropped bombs around South Sudanese oil fields.
Military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer identified the downed plane as a Sudanese MiG-29 jet fighter flying in South Sudan's Unity State. Aguer said he saw the confrontation and that the downed Sudanese MiG was one of two flying over the Naar and Toma South oil fields. He said the two MiGs had dropped "many" bombs since morning.
South Sudanese forces shot down the MiG with an anti-aircraft gun, he said.
The Sudanese "don't know that we have the capacity. They underestimate the SPLA," he said, referring to South Sudan's forces, the Southern People's Liberation Army.
The downing of the MiG threatens to push the two countries closer to all-out war. Aguer said southern officials are expecting Sudan to counterattack in retaliation for the shoot-down.
Sudan army spokesman Col. Sawarmy Khaled denied that any Sudanese jets were downed, saying the claim by the south lacked evidence.
"This is not right, and is a claim that lacks evidence and proof. We affirm this is talk for media consumption only," he said.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner urged both sides to stop fighting, ensure the safety of civilians, and let the African Union negotiate an end to their dispute. "We're obviously very concerned," Toner said when asked about the downing of the warplane.
South Sudan split from Sudan last year after decades of civil war. But the two sides never agreed on where exactly the two countries' border is and how to share oil revenues. The south now has most of the oil but must pump it through a pipeline that runs through Sudan.
South Sudan says that Sudan stole much of its oil, and the south shut down production earlier this year, depriving both countries of needed government revenue.
Hostilities between the two sides have grown in recent months, even as the south has said it is trying to avoid a return to war. A planned meeting between the presidents of Sudan and South Sudan scheduled for Tuesday was canceled by Sudan.
Aguer was part of a delegation led by South Sudanese Oil Minister Stephen Dhieu Dau to see a tie-in pipeline allegedly being built by Sudan. The south says the tie-in pipeline is a way for Sudan to steal South Sudan's oil.
Dau said the incomplete pipeline would be able to pump between 15,000 and 30,000 barrels of oil per day if linked up to Sudan's oil fields.
"They want take our oil even when we are shut down," Dau said.
This is not the first tie-in pipeline that has been unilaterally built by Khartoum. Another was built in January to link a pipeline in South Sudan operated by oil-consortium PetroDar to refineries in Khartoum. The pipeline was revealed shortly after Khartoum announced it would take oil "in kind" from South Sudan in lieu of an agreement on how much South Sudan should pay to use Sudan's pipelines.
In late January South Sudan accused Khartoum of stealing nearly all of its oil and ordered oil fields to halt operations.
According to Dau, the new tie-in pipeline was discovered just over a week ago during the border clashes between the two nations. Dau said SPLA forces found the pipeline when they pushed Sudanese Armed Forces back from Teshwin into the Heglig area on March 26.
"The pipeline was less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) from being complete," said Dau.
Wednesday's bombings are the latest in a series of open confrontations between Sudanese and South Sudanese troops that have world leaders on edge. President Barack Obama urged South Sudanese President Salva Kiir earlier this week to exercise maximum military restraint.
But according to Aguer, the fighting has been "a daily thing here on the front line" since the initial confrontation. Aguer said that almost 80 people have been killed — mostly military forces — since the fighting began.
While the region has been quiet since the downing of the MiG plane earlier, the border is tense. According to Aguer, South Sudan is "expecting ground troops to attack at any time."
Associated Press reporter Moahmed Osman in Khartoum, Sudan, contributed to this report.