South Sudan is holding on to the disputed border oil town of Heglig. The newly independent state says it has repulsed an offensive by Sudanese forces meant to retake the town.
South Sudan seized the oil field on Tuesday, as fighting in the poorly-defined border area escalated and sparked international condemnation and fears of a wider war with its northern neighbor.
The South Sudanese capital of Juba was Saturday said to be bracing for war. “The city is on a war footing; there are demonstrations being held every day and the youths are going to the headquarters of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to register in order to go to the frontline,” said Alfred Taban, the editor of The Juba Monitor newspaper.
“The mood [in Juba] is very belligerent indeed,” he said, “I can’t see how the situation cannot turn into a full scale war, unless, of course, something is done very fast to disengage the two sides.”
The border fighting has dampened hopes that the two sides will soon reach an agreement on oil payments and other disputed issues through African Union-brokered talks. Khartoum said it was pulling out of the negotiations on Wednesday.
In January, landlocked South Sudan shut down its own oil production in a row with Khartoum over how much it should pay to export via pipelines and other northern infrastructure to a terminal at Port Sudan.
The African Union and the United Nations have demanded an unconditional withdrawal. The African union’s peace and Security Council has called the occupation of Heglig “illegal and unacceptable”, but also condemned Sudan for carrying out aerial bombardments of South Sudan.
The authorities in Juba, Taban said, say the problem is with Khartoum because it is Khartoum that has been bombing parts of South Sudan, and when the SPLA matched into Heglig they were just retaliating.
He said the situation is made worse by the fact that the border has not yet been demarcated but theoretically Heglig is in the north (Sudan) although Southerners (South Sudan) have historical claims to that area.
Taban said an attempt by Sudan to recapture Heglig appears imminent. “There is a lot of mobilization going on in Khartoum – they are distributing arms, vehicles, and ammunition to the Messiriya tribe so that they can go and fight.”
With this mobilization, he said, there is no doubt they are going to match into Heglig anytime.
The fighting in Heglig has stopped oil production there affecting almost half of Sudan’s oil output.