By Abdelmoneim Abu Edris Ali | AFP
Dead bodies and destroyed tanks lay in Sudan’s southern oil centre of Heglig on Wednesday after government forces and South Sudanese troops clashed along the border, sparking international alarm.
Smoke still rose from a destroyed residence of oil workers, just metres (yards) from an unscathed oil well.
An AFP reporter observed the war debris while accompanying Sudan’s Oil Minister Awad Ahmad al-Jaz who spent about six hours in the area with Ahmad Harun, governor of surrounding South Kordofan state.
The correspondent saw three bodies and two tanks but the mangled tanks carried no visible identifying markings.
Some of the dead bore the insignia of rebels from the Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
Sudan’s military has alleged JEM “exploited” the north-south clash to target Sudanese troops in the Heglig area before being repulsed.
JEM on Wednesday repeated its earlier denial of involvement in the battle.
The movement’s spokesman, Gibril Adam Bilal, said the dead might be government troops dressed in rebel garb.
“We as JEM, we confirm we are not part of that battle in Heglig at all,” which was entirely a clash between South Sudan and Sudanese troops, Bilal said by telephone.
Two destroyed Land Cruisers at the battle scene also carried JEM insignia.
Both north and south claim parts of Heglig, an oil-rich territory that witnessed heavy fighting during Sudan’s devastating 22-year civil war.
The town is surrounded by numerous oil wells, on flat land scattered with acacia trees, but none of the oil infrastructure appeared damaged.
“Now there are no soldiers from our enemy inside Sudanese territory and the area is completely secure,” said Abdelmoneim Saad, operations commander for the Sudanese Armed Forces.
Heglig town is about 15 kilometres (nine miles) from the disputed frontier’s closest point.
South Sudan said its forces had taken the area on Monday when they pushed back Khartoum’s troops which had moved over the frontier into Unity state following air strikes.
A large contingent of Misseriya nomads from the paramilitary Popular Defence Force (PDF), a key battle force for the Sudanese military, patrolled the Heglig area on foot and by motorcycles, with rifles but without uniforms.
“Our border was won in 1956 and we will fight for this border even without the government’s permission, to protect our land,” said Ismail Hamdien, a Misseriya leader who travelled to the battle scene to assess the situation.
Police, intelligence agents and members of the regular armed forces — some riding cannon-mounted vehicles — added to a heavy security presence.
Sudan and South Sudan both said ground clashes had ended by Wednesday.
Oil operations in Heglig are run by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), a consortium led by China’s state oil giant CNPC.
“There is serious concern among us,” one Chinese oil worker said.
“How can we work in this situation? We want the government to protect us because we are working for the people of Sudan.”
Jaz said the fighting had not affected oil production.
But a Sudanese oil engineer said normal daily output of 60,000 barrels in the area — about half the country’s total — had fallen to 40,000 because some wells were affected by the fighting. He gave no further details.
Although both countries claim parts of the Heglig area, an analyst said it “is firmly in north Sudan”.
Analysts said there are elements in Khartoum, as well as the South, opposed to recent moves towards warmer relations between the two countries and suggested the latest flare-up was an effort to sabotage a rapprochement.
Border tensions have mounted since South Sudan split from Sudan in July last year after an overwhelming vote for secession that followed Africa’s longest war.
Earlier in March, after months of failed negotiations, an escalating row over oil fees and mutual accusations of backing rebels on each other’s territory, South Sudan’s chief negotiator Pagan Amum said relations had improved.
Amum and a South Sudanese delegation visited Khartoum last week to invite their “brother,” President Omar al-Bashir, to an April 3 summit in the southern capital Juba, and said he had accepted.
But after Monday’s fighting Khartoum said it had suspended the meeting.
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