Sudan denies responsibility for bombing market town as both sides trade allegations of sabotage
All-out war between Sudan and South Sudan has edged closer as warplanes bombed a large town in the South, destroying a street market, killing a boy and injuring 10 people.
Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, further ratcheted up the tension on Monday by suggesting the time for talking is over, leaving only “the language of the gun and ammunition”.
Weeks of fighting have brought the neighbours to the brink less than a year after South Sudan gained independence. On Monday the European Union joined the United States and African Union in urging restraint.
Such pleas seemed increasingly hopeless as Sudanese MiG 29 jets bombed an area near Bentiu in South Sudan, according to officials and witnesses.
One rocket just missed a key bridge, which links Bentiu with the disputed border and Heglig oilfields to the north. Another landed in the nearby Rubkona market, a heavily populated area.
Several shops were destroyed and one man was mutilated almost beyond recognition. The burned body of the boy lay flat on his back near the centre of the blast site, a hand clutching at the sky.
A hospital official in Bentiu told the Associated Press that 10 people were wounded. Reuters quoted officials and witnesses saying that three people had died.
South Sudanese soldiers and civilians returned volleys of futile small arms fire. Major General Mac Paul, the deputy director of military intelligence for South Sudan, said: “The bombing amounts to a declaration of war.”
Sudan denied any involvement. Its military spokesman, Al-Sawarmi Khalid, told Reuters: “We have no relation to what happened in Unity state, and we absolutely did not bomb anywhere in South Sudan.”
Meanwhile, Bashir arrived in Heglig, the oil-rich border town whose recent occupation by South Sudanese troops sparked the latest crisis. “We will not negotiate with the South’s government, because they don’t understand anything but the language of the gun and ammunition,” he told Sudanese troops at a barracks.
General Kamal Abdul Maarouf, a Sudanese commander who led the battles in Heglig, told Reuters that his army had killed 1,200 South Sudanese troops in fighting in the area – an account that South Sudan denied.
The countries are clashing over the demarcation of their border and the sharing of oil revenues, halting nearly all the oil production that underpins both economies. Bashir has vowed to teach South Sudan “a final lesson by force”.
Immediate tensions appeared to have eased on Friday when South Sudan said it was withdrawing its troops from Heglig following mounting international pressure. The African Union and the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon had condemned the occupation as illegal.
But on Saturday, a Muslim mob burned a Catholic church in Sudan frequented mostly by South Sudanese.
And on Sunday the two countries clashed near Teshwin, to the south of Heglig. There was also fighting further south, as well as in Talodi in South Kordofan in Sudan. In both countries, rebel groups allegedly used as proxy militias apparently took part.
Heglig, which was one of Sudan’s main sources of income, was all but destroyed under South Sudanese control. The South Sudanese army says the oil processing facility was hit by Sudanese planes, but Sudan says it was an act of deliberate economic sabotage by the South Sudanese. “The Sudanese are now trying to take revenge and do as much damage as they can before the rainy season starts,” one local source said.
Heglig has been thoroughly looted, including by civilians. Several men in Rubkona market wear jumpsuits belonging to an oil company. Others sell goods raided from the oil workers’ compound, by far the most prosperous settlement for miles around.
The fighting has apparently stiffened the resolve of the South Sudanese. “We are now being forced into war,’ said Stephen Bading, a civil servant. “We are not intending to fight – our president has a saying that he would not take his people to war – but if the enemy[makes] a series of attacks, intended to target the South, definitely we have to defend ourselves.”
As the confrontation escalates, the international community has called for a ceasefire. On Friday Barack Obama asked the presidents of Sudan and South Sudan to resume negotiations and said conflict is not inevitable.
The African Union called on both countries to end “senseless fighting” and on Monday the European Union urged a return to the negotiating table.
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in July last year after an independence vote, the culmination of a 2005 peace treaty after decades of war that killed more than 2 million people.