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Sudans' border clashes

Oil well drilling pits at Heglig, central Sudan

Borderland fighting between Sudan and South Sudan broke out on 25 March, raising fears that the fragile peace that has more or less held since a 2005 accord (CPA) ended decades of civil war, could break down entirely.

South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in July 2011, has accused its neighbour of conducting bombing raids on oil installations inside its Unity State, and armoured ground forces from both sides have clashed, notably around the Heglig oil fields which since secession has provided almost half of Sudan’s crude. Most of the other fields now lie in South Sudan. 

On 28 March South Sudan said it had withdrawn from Heglig. Envoys from both countries were due to meet in Addis Ababa on 29 March.

The UN Security Council called for restraint and warned that the clashes “threaten to precipitate a resumption of conflict between the two countries, worsen the humanitarian situation, and lead to further civilian casualties.” 

Sudan analyst John Ashworth told IRIN: “It's still too early to judge whether this a true escalation leading to all-out war or whether it is just another example of brinkmanship, pushing things to the extreme in order to get a better negotiating position.”

Where is Heglig? 

Heglig is situated close to the middle of the yet-to-be-defined 1,800km Sudan-South Sudan border. It lies between Abyei and South Kordofan’s Nuba Mountains, where since June 2011 SPLA-N rebels - allied to the southern insurgency during the 1983-2005 civil war - have been fighting the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). 

Heglig is also close to the border town of Jau, which was captured late February by the SPLA-N, which Khartoum claims still enjoys considerable support from Juba.

Heglig (called Panthou by southerners) used to be included within the boundaries of Abyei, one of the “Three Areas” on the border - the others are South Kordofan and Blue Nile - whose status was left unresolved by the CPA (see below).

Abyei’s boundaries were redrawn by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2009 in a ruling that Heglig lay outside of the area. (see map

While Khartoum said this ruling meant Heglig lay within its territory, Juba insists it is part of Unity State, saying it is south of the 1956 border both sides agreed to when they signed the CPA.

A senior official in South Sudan's Foreign Ministry told IRIN that in the absence of a peaceful resolution to the dispute, South Sudan’s army was “completely justified in occupying Panthou”.

According to Douglas Johnson, one of the members of the Abyei Boundary Commission, which in a 2005 ruling included Heglig in Abyei, “the borders had been and still are exceptionally difficult to define due to the lack of accurate historical maps and because virtually the entire oil-producing area was depopulated by Khartoum during the civil war.”

Johnson told IRIN that the Sudan Survey Department was still refusing to cooperate with the north-south boundary commission and that the most recent maps that included topographic data were from 1937. 

Nuba soldiers from the SPLA-N 9th division at a checkpoint in Jau, on the disputed border between Sudan and South Sudan

Nuba soldiers from the SPLA-N 9th division at a checkpoint in Jau, on the disputed border between Sudan and South Sudan(March 2012)
Peter Moszynski/IRIN
Nuba soldiers from the SPLA-N 9th division at a checkpoint in Jau, on the disputed border between Sudan and South Sudan
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Who's who in the opposition...
Nuba soldiers from the SPLA-N 9th division at a checkpoint in Jau, on the disputed border between Sudan and South Sudan

Photo: Peter Moszynski/IRIN
Nuba soldiers from the SPLA-N 9th division at a checkpoint in Jau, on the disputed border between Sudan and South Sudan

Why is Heglig so significant?

Links can be drawn between the latest border clashes and key issues that remain unresolved since the CPA was signed: border demarcation, oil-revenue sharing and the Three Areas. (Abyei residents, for example, were supposed to decide in a referendum in 2011 whether to join the south but this has yet to take place).

The latest clashes also threaten an important agreement Juba and Khartoum signed in March 2012 that would have made it easier for hundreds of thousands of southerners to remain in Sudan. Without that deal, they were supposed to regularize their status - logistically almost impossible - or leave by 8 April. South Sudan is ill-equipped to accommodate such a sudden and large influx, especially because the imminent rainy season will render most roads impassable.

John Ashworth told IRIN: “I don't want to say that the CPA was flawed, because it was the best that could be hoped for at the time, but we are certainly now reaping the fruits of areas not fully addressed by the CPA.”

According to Johnson, none of the international players involved in the CPA gave much thought to what would happen to the Three Areas in the event of secession because “they were initially entirely focused on trying to make unity appear attractive.” Once the independence writing was on the wall, “they were only concerned with ensuring that independence was peaceful.” 

Mukesh Kapila, who served as UN humanitarian coordinator in Sudan in 2003 and 2004 and now works for the Aegis Trust, an advocacy NGO, told IRIN: “The CPA fudged-over the legitimate complaints of the long-suffering marginalized people of Nuba, Abyei, Blue Nile, and Darfur. Unless a sincere attempt is made to solve this in a fair and just manner, violent conflict will continue to erupt here and there. Citizenship, oil, and border demarcation may complicate the picture but they are, in significant part, proxies for the grievances of the much abused people of Sudan's borderlands which have to be tackled first if there is to be any peace and stability for the two countries."

Who are the combatants?

The Fourth and (entirely Nuba) Ninth Division of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) - the former rebel group that is now South Sudan’s regular army. The Tenth Division of SPLA-North is also fighting in neighbouring Blue Nile, led by the state's recently deposed governor, Malik Agar. 

The fighting also links to the conflict in Darfur, because the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and other Darfuri rebels last November formed an alliance with SPLA-N, the Sudan Revolutionary Front, which aims to bring about regime change in Khartoum. JEM has fighters currently operating alongside the SPLA-N in the Nuba Mountains.

SAF has been reinforced with Popular Defence Force militias. On 26 March President Omar al Bashir issued a decree establishing “a committee to mobilize Jihadists”.

Khartoum is also accused of supporting renegade militia forces in South Sudan, called the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA), currently under the command of Maj-Gen Mathews Pul Jang, following the death of its founder, Lt-Gen George Athor Deng, last December. This week the SSLA claimed it had captured a military base in northern Pariang County, defeating 5,000 SPLA troops.

The Sudanese air force also bombed areas well within Unity State, on 1, 26 and 27 March, leading many aid agencies to reduce or halt operations in northern Unity.

According to UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the conflict is also impacting on the refugees who have escaped to South Sudan. 


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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