The African Union said Thursday that South Sudan acted illegally when it sent troops across the border into Sudan to capture a strategic oil field and demanded the force's immediate withdrawal. Diplomats are urging the presidents of both countries to show leadership as war seems imminent.
The AU Peace and Security Council condemned Sudan as well as South Sudan for hostile actions that appear to signal a resumption of the war that ended seven years ago. Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra warned that the south's military incursion into the northern oil field at Heglig and the north's aerial bombing campaign had raised tensions to a new level.
"It cannot be reduced to yet just another incident like the ones we have seen before. Therefore, it is the feeling in the Peace and Security Council that it is the time now for the two leaders -- Presidents Omar al-Bashir and Salva Kiir -- to display the required leadership, so that the two countries would avoid a disastrous war which the two people do not need to fall in again," Lamamra said.
But the south's capture of Heglig appears to have dashed all hopes for a Bashir-Kiir summit. The Khartoum government said it was pulling out of AU-mediated talks. And a hoped-for meeting on the sidelines of a security summit in Ethiopia on Saturday and Sunday evaporated when it was announced that President Bashir would not attend.
AU diplomats say South Sudan's move to capture and close the Heglig oil fields has cut Sudan's oil production in half. That has raised calls in Khartoum for swift military action to reclaim the fields.
As border clashes escalated on Thursday, South Sudan President Kiir told parliament he would not order a withdrawal from Heglig. He said the south has a rightful claim to the area.
The AU Peace and Security Council rejected that claim, in a statement read by Commissioner Lamamra.
"The council is dismayed by the illegal and unacceptable occupation by the South Sudanese armed forces of Heglig, which lies north of the agreed border line of the first of January 1956 border line. The Council demanded the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the army of the Republic of South Sudan from the area," Lamamra said.
African Union officials expressed concern about deteriorating conditions on several fronts. The Khartoum government is said to be delaying efforts to provide humanitarian aid to South Kordofan and Blue Nile states along the border. More than 400,000 people there fled their homes last year after violence broke out, and reports suggest that troops are massing for more fighting.
AU diplomats also noted reports of irregular militias forming to support regular Sudanese army forces in Blue Nile and Kordofan states. Those officials say that previously, military activity in the region had been exclusively by regular military units.
The appearance of militia units is raising fears of a return to the village burnings and other brutal tactics attributed to the Janjaweed militias that ravaged Darfur during the early days of that region's civil war nearly a decade ago.