The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) on Tuesday acknowledged that it has lost control of the oil-rich town of Heglig following what it said was an attack by South Sudan’s People Liberation Army (SPLA) and “mercenaries”.
South Sudan government, was the first to speak about the fighting earlier today when it denounced air attacks by Sudan air force targeting a strategic bridge in Abiemnhom which is situated west of Mayom town that is part of the Unity state.
Juba claimed that the bombing injured four civilians including one child.
South Sudan minister of Information and official spokesperson, Barnaba Benjamin Marial, urged the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), African Union and Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to condemn Khartoum’s “act of violation” in South Sudan’s airspace which he said is contrary to international principles.
Phillip Aguer, the spokesperson of South Sudan army described SAF’s attacks as “provocative” stressing that their army is on full alert to respond to any form of aggression inside their territories.
However, Aguer could not confirm whether the SPLA actually entered Heglig as Khartoum has asserted.
“What I can tell you is that two brigades of Sudan Armed Forces, backed with 16 tanks and accompanied by Arab militias loyal to Khartoum advanced towards Unity State with the intent to capture and occupy the oil fields, but our forces repulsed them towards Heglig,” Aguer said on Wednesday.
Today the head of the SPLA in Unity State told reporters that South Sudan’s army managed to capture the oil-rich area of Heglig in Sudan’s South Kordofan state on Monday afternoon after repulsing an attack by SAF.
According to the commander of the SPLA’s fourth division, James Gatduel Gatluak, SAF launched air and ground attacks that forced them to respond by engaging the Sudanese army and taking control of Heglig on Tuesday.
In Khartoum the Sudanese government issued a statement on Tuesday night carried by state media condemning the “blatant aggressive behavior” of South Sudanese troops and announced that it retains the right to repeal the aggression and use all the legitimate means to defend the integrity of its territory.
The SAF spokesperson Colonel Al-Sawarmi Khalid Sa’ad said that “fierce battles” are still ongoing but did not address reports that Heglig has fallen out of Khartoum’s hands. He said the attack on Heglig comes in line with the “aggressive positions” of South Sudan President Salva Kiir who wishes to prolong the war between the Sudan and South Sudan.
Col. Sa’ad was referring to statements made by Salva Kiir last month in Juba where he said that Heglig is part of South Sudan territory.
Later SAF spokesperson admitted to the BBC that South Sudanese troops are currently inside Heglig.
“Now the [soldiers] from South Sudan they are inside Heglig city, and the oilfield, they conquered the Sudanese army outside of Heglig,” Col. Sa’ad said.
“The South Sudanese attacked our Sudanese army in Heglig, as you know Heglig is not part of South Sudan,” he continued.
Meanwhile, the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) sent a statement on Wednesday morning via email without attribution saying that the “Sudan Revolutionary Forces (SRF)” have taken full control of Heglig and advanced 30 kilometers towards Kadugli, capital of South Kordofan.
A security source confirmed on Tuesday that SAF withdrew from Heglig and that oil workers were evacuated for the most part. He disclosed that it was the Sudanese army ordering its troops to pull out.
A special forces unit originally headed to rebel stronghold of Kauda in South Kordofan was caught in the fighting and incurred heavy losses, the source said but did not provide figures.
A Sudanese man who works in the oil industry, who did not want to be named, told reporters that Sudan began the fighting while another source suggested that SAF was trying to regain a post on the disputed border they had lost two weeks ago.
There were unconfirmed reports later on Tuesday that SAF has started an aerial bombardment campaign. However, it is likely that Khartoum will exercise extreme caution so as not to cause damage to oil infrastructure there.
The escalation of clashes between the two will deal a severe blow to the African Union mediated process led by its chairman Thabo Mbeki which aims at resolving post-independence issues.
Sudan and South Sudan reaffirmed different times in the past that they do not want war but every side yet emphasizes that it is simply defending its territory and accuses the other of using rebel groups as proxies.
South Sudan government spokesman said prior to his press conference today that he had held talks with president Salva Kiir during which he reiterated the government’s position that it will not be dragged into a “senseless” war by Khartoum.
North and South Sudan fought over two decades of a bloody civil war, which ended with the 2005 signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The contentious border issue between the two countries, he said, can only be amicably resolved through peaceful dialogue not war.
The Sudanese ministry of information said the attack on Heglig comes at the heels of a visit by Mbeki to Khartoum where Sudan underscored its commitment to reaching a peaceful resolution of contentious issues through dialogue. It vowed to use “all means” to defeat the attack.
The rebel groups operating near the border from the two sides are accused of taking part in the fight or even of being the instigators of the attacks. This was the case of the first attack on Heglig last month.
In a related issue, a Sudanese journalist told South Sudanese media from Khartoum that authorities are forcing them to stick to official statements on Heglig only.