South Sudan will soon acquire anti-aircraft missiles to defend its territory against air attacks it says are frequently carried out by warplanes from neighbouring Sudan, the South Sudanese military said on Wednesday.
Since South Sudan became the world’s newest independent nation in July last year, its government has accused northern neighbour Sudan of continuing aerial bombing raids on South Sudanese territory, a charge routinely denied by Khartoum.
Foreign reporters in South Sudan have witnessed bombings by Sudanese warplanes of targets including a market, a refugee camp and oil infrastructure, and border skirmishes between the two countries’ armies last month included a series of air raids by the northern nation.
The United Nations’ top human rights official said on Friday she was outraged by Sudan’s “indiscriminate” bombings of South Sudan that killed and injured civilians, after U.N. officials verified damage and casualties caused by recent raids.
South Sudanese army spokesman Philip Aguer told reporters on Wednesday that Juba’s military intended to acquire anti-aircraft missiles as part of the new African nation’s plans to modernise and re-equip its armed forces, which had previously fought for years as a rebel guerrilla army against Khartoum.
“It will enhance our defenses. All strategic points need to be protected, including oil-producing areas and airports,” Aguer said. He did not say where South Sudan would seek to purchase the anti-aircraft weapons, nor exactly what kind they would be.
“It depends on the market and the political will to sell to us,” Aguer said.
He did not specify a time-frame for the South Sudanese army to acquire the anti-aircraft capability, but a local newspaper quoted the head of South Sudan’s army (SPLA) James Hoth Mai as saying his troops would be equipped with anti-aircraft missiles within a “few months.”
Last month’s fighting broke out amid disputes between the two former civil war foes over oil exports, border demarcation, citizenship rights and financial arrangements.
On May 2, the U.N. Security Council, endorsing an African Union peace plan, gave the two sides two weeks to resume talks on the outstanding disputes, but there was no indication that a firm date has been set for negotiations to restart.
The Security Council, including China and Russia, gave them three months to solve the issues or face sanctions.
Aguer said acquiring air-defense capability would help South Sudan to consolidate its newly-won independence, unanimously endorsed by its population in a referendum following an initial 2005 peace agreement that ended more than two decades of civil war between the North and the South.
“Prior to independence, it was not easy to acquire these weapons but now we will,” Aguer said.
“This will promote the confidence of South Sudanese citizens that their airspace will not be violated again. That will have a psychological and physical impact,” he added.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also called on Sudan to halt what she called “provocative” air bombardments.
Last week, a former U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, urged his country to send weapons to Juba.
“The only way to end the North’s bullying and foster peace talks is to give the South the right tools: American anti-aircraft weapons,” Natsios wrote in an article published in the Washington Post.
Experts said acquiring anti-aircraft weapons would certainly strengthen the South Sudanese army’s arsenal against the generally better-armed northern forces, but would not necessarily end the bombings or the conflict.
Jonah Leff, project coordinator for the Small Arms Survey Sudan Project, said the South’s army would have to be trained to use the surface-to-air missiles effectively.
“I wouldn’t expect for Khartoum to back down, but anti-aircraft missiles would give the SPLA an advantage that they didn’t previously have,” he said in an email.
“Even if Khartoum decides to cease its aerial operations, which I find doubtful, the two sides still seem to have an appetite for war, which could be fought on the battefield,” Leff added.
The two Sudans sit on significant oil reserves, but the independence of the South gave it two-thirds of the oil outpout of the previously unified nation. A dispute over the level of fees independent South Sudan should pay to Sudan to export its crude through the north prompted Juba to shut off its oil production earlier this year, straining the two economies.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said on Tuesday Khartoum would not allow South Sudan to export any oil through its territory unless the two states settle all arguments over border security.