x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Tensions escalate as South Sudan refuses to pull out of border region

South Sudan's president rejects calls to withdraw forces, but said he did not want war with Khartoum, as Omar Al Bashir accuses Juba of "choosing the path of war".

JUBA // South Sudan's president yesterday rejected calls to pull out from contested border regions but said he did not want war with Khartoum.

Salva Kiir spoke to South Sudan's parliament in the midst of escalating border clashes. He said his country's military would also re-enter another disputed area, Abyei, currently occupied by Sudan if the United Nations did not urge Sudan to withdraw.

On Wednesday, troops from South Sudan captured the town of Heglig, which is claimed by Sudan, whose troops withdrew under the onslaught. Mr Kiir said South Sudan's military forces had advanced past Heglig after occupying it.

Heglig has been the focal point of more than two weeks of clashes between the nations. Both sides claim the area, but Sudan operates Heglig's oil facilities.

Sudan said it shut down the facilities after the South Sudanese forces had entered the region on Tuesday.

The Sudanese president, Omar Al Bashir, yesterday accused South Sudan of "choosing the path of war".

Ahmed Haroun, the governor of the Sudanese province of Southern Kordofan, said yesterday that it was only "a matter of hours" until Sudanese forces regained Heglig.

Mr Al Bashir, the Sudanese president, blamed foreign agitators for pushing the two Sudans towards war.

"Our brothers in South Sudan have chosen the path of war, implementing plans dictated by foreign parties who supported them during the civil war," Mr Al Bashir told reporters in Khartoum, referring to decades of conflict before the South's independence last year.

"War is not in the interest of either South Sudan or Sudan but, unfortunately, our brothers in the South are thinking neither of the interests of Sudan or of South Sudan."

Fighting along the north-south border has been near constant for two weeks. Yesterday, South Sudan accused Sudan of bombing the capital of Unity state, Bentiu.

The SPLA spokesman, Colonel Philip Aguer, said Antonov aircraft belonging to Sudan dropped five bombs on a bridge linking Bentiu to Rubkotna. The two towns comprise Unity state's most populated area.

"This is an indiscriminate bombing," and according to initial reports one civilian was killed and four were wounded in the attack, Col Aguer said.

People were staying in their homes, "when the planes come they lie down", said Gideon Gatpan, the Unity state information minister. One person was killed in the attack, he said.

The last time Khartoum bombed southern towns was during the 1983-2005 civil war in which two million people died, paving the way for the splitting of Africa's largest nation into two in July.

Mr Kiir said he had received numerous appeals from the international community to withdraw SPLA troops from the disputed territory, including a call from the United Nation's secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

"Last night I never slept because of the telephone calls," he said. "Those who have been calling me - starting with the UN secretary general yesterday - he gave me an order that I'm ordering you to immediately withdraw from Heglig. I said: 'I'm not under your command,'" Mr Kiir said.

"If you [Ban] are not moving these forces of Bashir out of Abyei, we are going to reconsider our position and we are going to head to Abyei," Mr Kiir told lawmakers to a standing ovation.

The military advance by South Sudan into territory it claims but which is internationally recognised as Sudan's brought swift condemnation from the United States and Britain. Both nations, along with the UN Security Council, urged South Sudan to withdraw from Heglig and condemned the bombings of South Sudan territory by Sudan.

Fighting erupted in Abyei between Sudan and South Sudan in May of last year, just months before South Sudan formally declared independence.

The region was to hold a referendum in January to decide whether it stays with Sudan or joins the South. But the vote was postponed indefinitely amid disagreements over who would be eligible to vote.

The fighting has displaced more than 100,000 people, most of whom are still waiting to return.

* Agence France-Presse, with additional reporting by Associated Press