South Sudan has accused the Khartoum government of rejecting peace overtures while its forces bomb targets in the south. As a result, African Union-mediated talks in Addis Ababa are in danger of collapse.
South Sudan chief negotiator Pagan Amum says Sudanese warplanes bombed southern positions for a seventh day Sunday, while Khartoum's defense minister spurned scheduled security talks. He said the minister's absence for a meeting of a Joint Political and Security Mechanism (JPSM) shows Sudan is rejecting the AU-mediated peace process.
"Unfortunately, the response of Khartoum is war. They have launched aerial and ground attacks from Monday. Up to today they are bombing South Sudan. The government of Sudan is the one that is waging war, the head of the JPSM on their side is not here. The Meeting was supposed to take place yesterday, and he has not appeared."
Officials of the AU mediation panel described the talks as “on hold” pending the arrival of the Sudanese defense minister. They held out hope that he was on his way after receiving what was described as a personal invitation from the chief mediator, former South African president Thabo Mbeki.
The South Sudanese delegation that arrived for the scheduled start of the talks was clearly upset at having to wait while defense ministry officials in Khartoum deal with what they say is a military incursion from the south.
Chief southern negotiator Pagan Amum flatly rejected reports of a military incursion into Sudanese territory.
"There is no South Sudanese presence. Not a single South Sudanese soldier on Sudanese soil".
Mediators had hoped the talks would lead to a rescheduling of a summit meeting between Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. The meeting had originally been set for April 3 in the South Sudanese capital, Juba. But the Khartoum government backed out of the meeting after accusing the South of attacking the Sudanese oil center of Heglig last Monday.
The south vehemently denies the attack, and accuses Sudan of instigating the clash.
Mediation panel sources remained hopeful Sunday that the Juba summit might still be held, though it could be delayed a week. They say a meeting of the presidents is crucial to breaking logjams that have delayed progress in the talks on key issues, including sharing oil revenues.
South Sudan is said to be in especially desperate straits after shutting down its oil production in January. Oil accounts for 98 percent of the country's income.
South Sudan's Foreign Minister Nhial Deng Nhial tells VOA his government would be willing to move the summit to a neutral site, probably Addis Ababa, if that would ease Khartoum's objections.
"We have no objection at all to meeting President Bashir in a venue other than Juba in South Sudan, though we would prefer President Bashir to come to Juba, as a return because President Salva paid a visit to Khartoum last October and the understanding was that President Bashir would come to Juba. But if for any reason he feels coming to Juba is objectionable, we have no problem meeting him anywhere else."
African Union officials said mediation panel chief Thabo Mbeki was willing to stay as long as necessary to get the two sides to implement a Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism. The mechanism is aimed at preventing a war by jointly examining outbreaks of hostilities along the disputed frontier. The mechanism was part of an agreement signed last June, weeks before the south declared independence from Khartoum.