KHARTOUM: Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir all but declared war against his newly independent neighbour yesterday, vowing to teach South Sudan a “final lesson by force” after it occupied a disputed oil field.
Mounting violence since Sudan split into two countries last year has raised the prospect of two sovereign African states waging war against each other openly for the first time since Ethiopia fought newly-independent Eritrea in 1998-2000.
Appearing in medal-spangled military uniform at a large rally, Bashir danced side-to-side, waved his walking stick in the air and made blistering threats against the leadership of the South, which seceded last year after decades of civil war.
“These people don’t understand, and we will give them the final lesson by force,” the burly military ruler told the rally in El-Obeid, capital of the North Kordofan state. “We will not give them an inch of our country, and whoever extends his hand on Sudan, we will cut it off.”
China, a major investor in the oil industry in both countries, expressed “serious concern” about the increase of tensions and called on both sides to stop fighting, “maintain calm and exercise maximum restraint”.
South Sudan separated from the rest of Sudan with Bashir’s blessing last July under the terms of a 2005 peace deal. But since then violence has steadily escalated, fuelled by territorial disputes, ethnic animosity and quarrels over oil.
Last week, South Sudan seized Heglig, a disputed oilfield near the border between the two countries, claiming it as its rightful territory and saying it would only withdraw if the United Nations deployed a neutral force there.
In a sign of the conflict widening, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – considered the most militarily potent of the rebel factions in Sudan’s western Darfur region – claimed it had launched an assault on the al-Kharsana oil region near Heglig.
“We are surrounding the Sudanese army in the main military base in al-Kharsana,” JEM spokesman Gibreel Adam Bilal said by phone. Heglig is hundreds of km away from JEM’s bases in Darfur but the group has fought in the Kordofan region in the past.
Heglig not the end
Bashir’s address to the rally on yesterday followed a fiery speech to party supporters on Wednesday, when he vowed to “liberate” South Sudan from its ruling party, which he repeatedly referred to as “insects”, in a play on its Arabic name.
“Mr President, we are no insects and if you are launching your genocide activities to the Republic of South Sudan to kill the people of South Sudan…. we can assure you we will protect the lives of our citizens.”
Sudan’s military – with an air force, tanks and artillery – is far better equipped than the former guerrilla fighters who make up the South Sudan army. In addition to the civil war in the south, Sudan has also fought long-simmering rebellions in Darfur and its South Kordofan and Blue Nile border states.
The south has tens of thousands of fighters under arms, with decades of experience in guerrilla conflict.