JUBA/BEIJING // South Sudan freed Sudanese prisoners of war yesterday in a gesture it hopes will defuse tensions between the countries, whose cross-border fighting has threatened to tip into all-out war.
Sitting on top of one of Africa's most significant oil reserves, Sudan and South Sudan have been unable to resolve a dispute over oil revenues and border demarcation since the South gained independence in July.
Nearly all oil production has now stopped and the border fighting in contested oil-producing regions has grown more intensive, prompting China, which has economic interests in both countries, and the African Union to push for a diplomatic deal.
"The SPLA [South Sudan's army] handed over prisoners of war to the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross]. There were 14 who were captured during the battles of Heglig from April 10 to 15," said Colonel Philip Aguer, the spokesman for South Sudan's army.
Col Aguer was referring to the Heglig oilfield that the South captured this month but later withdrew from, under international pressure. Juba has since accused Sudan's armed forces of bombing its territory, a claim Khartoum denies.
South Sudan's government and its army have said the deal had been brokered by Egypt during its foreign minister's visit to both countries about 10 days ago. Col Aguer said the prisoners would be flown back to Khartoum via Cairo.
He said the men were mostly Sudanese from the north, as well as one South Sudanese who he said had been recruited as a mercenary, adding that the Sudanese army was holding at least seven SPLA members as prisoner of war.
"We have requested that they be released if they have not been killed," he said. There was no immediate comment on the prisoners from Khartoum.
Clashes appear to have ebbed following weeks of cross-border fighting after the Sudanese foreign minister, Ali Ahmed Karti, said Khartoum was ready to resume talks on security issues, a day after the president, Omar Al Bashir, had ruled them out.
Earlier, residents of Bentiu, about 80 kilometres from the contested border, said the area had come under attack from Sudanese fighter jets and they feared their dusty town might be the next target.
"I do not want war to come back," Nyachar Teny, an old woman, said in a market damaged by the Monday's air raid, in which at least two people were killed. "It seemed like everyone was finished with war."
Witnesses in Bentiu did not hear air strikes yesterday, after days of bombardment in the area. Sudan has denied carrying out air strikes.
Meanwhile, Sudan said South Sudan expelled more than 100 of its nationals working for oil companies.
Most were working for Petrodar, which is majority-owned by China National Petroleum Corp, according to the Sudanese spokesman, Rabie Abdelaty.
The Petrodar consortium is composed of the CNPC, Malaysia's Petronas, Sudan's Sudapet, China's Sinopec, and the UAE's Al Thani Corporation.
The move is likely to put the newly independent nation on a collision course as it continues attempts to shore up more allies, amid a worsening conflict with former civil foe, Sudan, according to analysts.
South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, was on a visit to China this week, seeking support for a southern alternative pipeline.
"Beijing may express willingness to study the pipeline proposal but there is unlikely to be strong support for it in China," said Philippe de Pontet, director for Africa at Eurasia Group. "The pipeline would take years to build, harm CNPC's interests and undermine Khartoum's incentives to find a compromise at the negotiating table.
"Moreover, Beijing will be cautious about committing more funding and personnel to unstable Sudan."
Mr Kiir cut short his visit yesterday, cancelling a trip to Shanghai amid clashes with Sudan.
* Reuters and Bloomberg