, KHARTOUM, Sudan, Mar 27 – UN chief Ban Ki-Moon appealed for calm after Sudan on Tuesday suspended an April summit between President Omar al-Bashir and his southern counterpart after fresh border clashes.
“The government announced that it suspended Bashir’s visit to Juba after the South Sudanese army attacked (the oil-rich territory of) Heglig,” state radio reported early on Tuesday. The two leaders had been due to meet on April 3.
Comments by the South’s leader Salva Kiir that his troops had taken the northern oil centre “reflected extreme hatred to Sudan,” said Information Minister Abdullah Ali Massar, the official SUNA news agency reported.
South Sudan had engaged in “deceptive and misleading acts” when it signed accords with Khartoum at African Union-led talks in Ethiopia, and when last week it invited Bashir to the summit, said Massar.
Ban called on the two countries to end the clashes and respect the agreements on border security they had already reached, said spokesman Martin Nesirky.
The two sides should “utilise to the fullest extent existing political and security mechanisms to peacefully address their differences,” added the spokesman.
The proposed talks between Bashir and Kiir had been aimed at easing tensions that pushed the two countries to the brink of war as recently as early March.
But fresh clashes erupted Monday along the disputed border.
Kiir warned of the threat of war after what he said had been Sudanese ground and air attacks on multiple positions in South Sudan’s oil-rich border regions.
“This morning the (Sudanese) air force came and bombed… areas in Unity state.”
Their troops had fought back and taken Heglig, he added.
“After this intensive bombardment our forces…. were attacked by SAF (Sudan Armed Forces) and militia,” he added, speaking at the opening of a ruling party meeting in the southern capital Juba.
“It is a war that has been imposed on us again, but it is they (Khartoum) who are looking for it,” said Kiir, adding that he did not want the conflict to resume.
Sudanese army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad initially said “limited clashes” had occurred between his forces and those of South Sudan along the border.
But later Monday Sudan’s military said a large contingent of South Sudanese troops had crossed several kilometres (miles) over the frontier, but that Sudanese soldiers had “defeated them and killed a number of their troops”.
The Sudanese military said southern troops had sought a meeting with a Sudanese commander Monday morning over alleged border violations by Khartoum’s troops, SUNA reported.
That afternoon, southern troops had moved over the frontier in force, it said.
The SAF spokesman accused rebels of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) from Sudan’s western Darfur region of having “exploited this clash” to target Sudanese troops in the Heglig area. They had been repulsed, he added.
The rebel group said that while it had some fighters in western South Kordofan, they had not clashed with Sudanese troops on Monday.
Both countries claim parts of the oil-rich territory of Heglig.
Border tensions have mounted since South Sudan split from Sudan in July after an overwhelming vote that followed Africa’s longest war.
In late February and early March Khartoum accused the south of backing a rebel attack in the disputed border area of Jau and threatened retaliation.
Air strikes followed on an oilfield in the south’s Unity State, an attack Juba blamed on Khartoum’s forces.
Later in March, after months of failed negotiations, a dispute 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” Bashir to the summit and said he had accepted.
On Monday – before word emerged of the fighting – officials in Khartoum said it was not yet certain he would make the trip.
South Sudanese army spokesman Philip Aguer said fighting was still going on and there had been casualties, though he did not have full details. But the army did not want the clashes to spiral into war, he added.
Earlier Monday SUNA reported that Bashir had issued a decree approving training camps for fresh recruits to the People’s Defence Force (PDF) militia.