ADDIS ABABA, Mar 29 – African-brokered crisis talks between Sudan and South Sudan after days of border clashes were delayed Thursday but the rival sides pledged to stop an escalation into full-blown war.
The talks in the Ethiopian capital were likely to be deferred because chief mediator, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, could only reach Addis Ababa on Saturday, South Sudan’s top negotiator told AFP.
“We are coming to Addis today, and we have received a message that maybe the meeting will be postponed,” Pagan Amum told AFP by telephone, adding he was hoping the African Union-mediated talks to start Saturday.
Amum has said aim was to “pursue peace” and to stop the recent violence, including airstrikes and tank battles, from “spreading to a full fledged war.”
Sudanese foreign affairs official Rahamatalla Mohamed Osman was already in Addis Ababa ahead of the talks, and stressed that Khartoum did not want a war with the South.
Both sides accuse the other of starting the fighting, the worst violence since South Sudan declared independence from Khartoum last July after decades of civil war.
South Sudan said northern bombers and troops had struck first on Monday, moving into Unity State before Southern troops fought back and took the Heglig oil field, parts of which are claimed by both countries.
Sudan later recaptured the field.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Khartoum of bearing most of the responsibility for the renewed hostilities.
The AU, UN Security Council and European Union have all called for an end to the fighting.
Officials in South Sudan’s Unity state said the border was calm Thursday, although northern warplanes were reported to be still flying over the state.
“We are hearing the sound of Antonovs but there have been no bombings since Wednesday,” said Gideon Gatpan, Unity state information minister.
“The situation otherwise is calmer, the SPLA (South army) are back in their barracks,” he added.
The AU said Wednesday it was deeply concerned at an “escalating security situation” between the former civil war foes, and called for troops to pull back 10 kilometres (six miles) either side of the border.
The unrest jeopardises AU-led efforts to resolve contentious border and oil disputes that have ratcheted up tensions between Juba and Khartoum.
The last round of AU-mediated talks in Addis Ababa closed this month with an agreement on nationality and border issues.
At the time it was hailed as a major breakthrough, but the mood quickly soured. However, analysts said they were still hopeful the sides can reach agreement.
“The economies of both nations are dependent on the parties coming to an agreement on the oil in the next few months,” said Dana Wilkins, from the campaign group Global Witness, which monitors the negotiations closely.
“It looks grim, but there is still hope that a deal is possible if the two sides can agree to sit down, end the war rhetoric, de-escalate tension, and hold a presidential summit.”