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On Ground in Heglig, Threat of War Persists

  • Gabe Joselow

SPLA troops stationed at Unity Oil Field, near front lines, Heglig, Sudan, April 14, 2012.

SPLA troops stationed at Unity Oil Field, near front lines, Heglig, Sudan, April 14, 2012.

Amid South Sudanese President Salva Kiir's announcement of military withdrawal from Heglig, a border town in the disputed oil-producing region of Abyei, about 100 soldiers lay around the shaded grounds of a military hospital, nursing injuries sustained on the frontlines.

Despite the past week's conflicting claims from Khartoum and Juba -- Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir has threatened all-out war, while diplomats on both sides have intermittently denied claims of ongoing battle and even expressed a desire for peaceful arbitration -- these troops of the South Sudanese military (SPLA) say they have been actively battling for two weeks. Some have been badly burned in Sudanese bombing raids, while others have been blinded.

They say the fighting had intensified in recent days as Khartoum vowed to reclaim Heglig from the South, and described constant bombardment from Mig and Antonov aircraft.

The SPLA, which has no air force, fought back by using troops on the ground, which, officials say, advanced 40 kilometers beyond Heglig earlier this week, traversing a region claimed by both sides since the south separated from the north last year.

Sudan controlled Heglig until South Sudanese forces seized the territory about two weeks ago. Oil fields in Heglig produced about half of Sudan's total oil output, and the South says northern forces were using the area to launch attack on southern territory, including here in Unity State.

NGO's operating in the capital of Unity State, Bentiu, have pulled out non-essential staff after Sudanese bombs struck parts of town, including a market along the Nile River and close to a bridge that leads to Heglig.

It appears battle may not be over yet. The SPLA has previously withdrawn from Heglig only to retake control of the town a few days later.

What is clear on the ground, however, is that any goodwill between the two sides following separation has all but dried up, and the threat of a return to war is real.

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