April 27, 2012 (LONDON) - The Sudanese diplomat nominated to be the country’s first ambassador to South Sudan appeared to acknowledge that Sudan’s air force had bombed South Sudan’s Unity State on Thursday, as Sudan’s military spokesperson again denied the allegation.
Violence over the last three weeks has been the worst since South Sudan seceded last year and comes shortly after the nine-month-old nation’s brief (April 10-20) occupation of the disputed Heglig oil region.
Mutrif Siddiq, who is yet to take up his post as Sudan’s Ambassador to Juba, said: “That was war during the last week [...] We have been using all that has been available to our hands.“
He added that “collateral damage" was "regrettable but inevitable", accusing South Sudan’s army (SPLA) and rebels north of the border, which Khartoum says are backed by Juba, of taking refuge in villages indangering civilian populations.
Siddig, a former Undersecretary at Sudan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and former Humanitarian Affairs Minister, was responding to a question posed by Baroness Cox, a peer in the UK parliament during a teleconference between Khartoum and London on Thursday.
Cox, who has recently returned from a visit to South Sudan, asked Siddig how his government justified bombing civilians with MiG 29 fighter jets and long-range shelling.
South Sudan’s representative to the UK, Wol Ariec, told the event at the Overseas Development Institute in London that Khartoum could no longer deny that they are "bombing our population".
Juba has accused the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) of carrying out several bombing campaigns on South Sudanese territory since the country’s independence last year.
Khartoum has always denied the allegations and on Thursday SAF army spokesman al-Sawarmi Khalid repeated that denial as South Sudan made further claims.
South Sudanese army (SPLA) spokesman, Philip Aguer, told Reuters on Thursday that "Two MiGs, one Antonov and two gunships dropped four bombs near the cattle camps," of Chotchara village the previous day.
The South Sudanese representative told the forum that his government had ordered the withdrawal from Heglig in order to bring about a cessation of hostilities, after immense pressure from the international community.
Sudan says that it forced the SPLA out of the area killing over 1,000 of its soldiers. Juba denies this but an AFP journalist has reported seeing "unaccountable" dead bodies wearing Southern military uniform when he visited the area.
However, Ariec maintained that the SPLA had pulled-out on its on volition, asserting that the lack of international pressure had given Khartoum a "licence" to kill civilians in South Sudan.
The diplomat said that his government and people reserved the "right to self defence" claiming that SAF had bombed South Sudan 60 times.
He said there was "no evidence" to say that Panthou - as Heglig is referred to by the Dinka tribe whom Juba insists the area belongs to - is not part of South Sudan.
But Siddig, replied from Khartoum that "regardless what you call it [Heglig or Panthou]. Its part of Sudan".
He described as "ridiculous" South Sudan’s claim that the area had been annexed by President Jaffar Nimery (1969-1985) after oil was discovered there in the 1970s.
Juba could not have hit a more sensitive nerve when it took Heglig on 10 April in response, it says, to repeated incursions by the Sudanese army and aerial bombardments. Heglig’s oil fields account for around half of Sudan’s remaining 115,000 barrels-per-day oil-production.
However, the haste with which the SPLA stopped production in Heglig and damage - which both sides blame on the other - to the infrastructure in the area means that it will take some time before Khartoum can benefit again from one of its few remaining oil fields. South Sudan took with it 75% of the country’s production when it seceded.
Siddig described South Sudan’s claims over Heglig as a "non-starter". Near-universal international condemnation met South Sudan’s ten-day occupation including the United States, European Union and African Union (AU), all of which supported South Sudan’s independence bid.
"Even your allies are telling you [you] have done wrong", said the senior member of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party. Negotiations between the two sides in Addis Ababa were called off by Khartoum after the SPLA took Heglig.
As well as agreeing the fee landlocked South Sudan should pay Sudan to export its oil, the AU-mediated talks have also failed to bring the countries to sign deals on debt, borders and the status of South Sudanese in the North and Sudanese in the South.
"We are not killing southerners we are harbouring southerners" Siddig said.
There are estimated to be over half a million South Sudanese remaining in North Sudan despite their citizenship being revoked. South Sudan’s new embassy in Khartoum has been issuing documents to those classified as South Sudanese so that they can either leave the country or apply for a work permit.
"We are having more than 30,000 [South Sudanese students] in our universities" in Sudan, Siddig said. He denied that South Sudanese had been made stateless saying that the responsibility lies on government of South Sudan to issue ID cards and documents.
"Our problem is with the SPLM not the people", he said.
On 20 April a church in Khartoum was set on fire by Islamic extremists, actions which Yassir Arman - a rebel leader in South Kordofan - has claimed were incited by "racist" comments made by Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir who has twice refered to South Sudan’s leaders as "insects" in the last two weeks.
Bashir’s emotive rhetoric, insistence that all talks were off while the SPLM remained in power, as well as vowing South Sudan would never be able to export its oil through his country, contrasts with other officials who have said talks could resume under certain conditions.
Tijani Sissi, a government official who was also on the panel in Khartoum said that Sudan has "no objection to going back to the negotiating table", especially to address security issues.
"If security is not addressed, this will become a very hot spot over the next two years", said the former Darfur rebel leader who joined the government last year.
The African Union has laid out a road map for future talks, demanding that they resume within two weeks and a deal on key issues is signed within three months.
Ariec told the event organised by ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group that his country would not seek to resolve the issue over the border through violence.
"We are ready to go back to Addis [Ababa] to move things forward, peace is better than war", he said.