JUBA, May 29 – South Sudan said its foe Sudan bombarded its territory Monday on the eve of talks to prevent a return to all-out war, but Khartoum rejected the charges and promised to pull out from a contested area.
The former civil war foes fought heavily in border regions last month in some of the worst fighting since the South won independence last July that sparked international concern of a wider conflict wrecking regional stability.
International pressure has pushed both sides to return to the long-running talks stalled by the fighting in April, when Southern troops seized an oil field from Khartoum’s army as Sudan launched repeated air strikes, which Juba says continue still.
“They are bombing South Sudan, attacking South Sudan, and continuing to send armed groups to destabilise South Sudan… these are not the signs of peace,” said South Sudan’s negotiator Pagan Amum, as he set off for the African Union-led talks in Ethiopia.
The UN Security Council earlier this month ordered both sides to cease fighting and return to talks or face possible sanctions.
Sudan denied South’s claims and in an apparent peace gesture, promised to end a year-long occupation on Tuesday of the contested Abyei region, a Lebanon-sized area whose ownership is a key issue for Juba and Khartoum.
“Sudan decided to redeploy the troops out of Abyei area to offer a good environment for the talks,” he said, adding that Khartoum requested a “guarantee” that the area is part of its territory.
“We will start tomorrow and we will invite journalists to see this redeployment,” Sudanese army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad said in a statement.
Abyei was to have held a referendum in January 2011 on whether it belonged with the north or South, but that ballot was stalled over disagreement on who could vote, and Juba is highly unlikely to agree to relinquish its claim.
Southern army spokesman Philip Aguer said Sudanese and Southern troops clashed Monday, after three days of air strikes and artillery bombardment that killed 10 civilians.
“Ten people were killed today, and villages were destroyed…they want to use the attacks for bargaining” at the talks, Aguer told AFP, who said the villages of Werguet, Majokwoi and Kiirkou were attacked, close to the border with Sudan.
Sudan denied the reported attacks, which were not possible to confirm independently. It has in turn accused the South of alleged cross-border incursions, which it said broke a UN Security Council order to halt hostilities.
“We didn’t cross the international borders, either by plane or on the ground,” said Saad.
Amum said he was hopeful the negotiations due to start on Tuesday in Addis Ababa would produce results.
“We are actually more optimistic than any time before, as today we have the UN Security Council resolution giving a timeframe to achieve resolution within three months,” Amum said. “It is good there is international backing.”
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in July after a 2005 peace deal ended one of Africa’s longest civil wars, which killed about two million people.
But tensions soon flared again over a series of unresolved issues, including the border, the future of disputed territories and oil.
The South separated with about 75 percent of the former united Sudan’s oil production, but Juba still depends on the north’s pipeline and Red Sea port to export its crude.
A protracted dispute over fees for use of that infrastructure led South Sudan in January to shut its oil production after accusing the north of theft.