South Sudan blamed as it gears up for war

  • 30 April 2012
  • From the section Africa
Media captionAndrew Harding reports from South Sudan's frontline as clashes continue

At a dusty intersection just north of Bentiu, three young South Sudanese soldiers were waiting for a lift to the frontlines.

"We are in a process leading to war," said 24-year-old Moses Akon, thoughtfully.

Trucks and pick-ups crammed with troop reinforcements, weapons, and a surprising amount of beer - crates of Red Horse beer to be precise - raced past.

"We do not want to fight, but we shall," said Mr Akon.

The front line itself consists of shallow foxholes dug into the hard earth, tank and heavy machine guns hidden under trees, and a mood of frustration and belligerence among many of the soldiers who were forced - under the most withering international pressure - to withdraw from the Heglig oil fields they'd recently seized from Sudanese forces to the north.

"We are now at war," said Major General James Gatduel, freely admitting that he and his men are itching to advance once more to recapture Heglig.

On Saturday afternoon, Sudanese planes bombed the frontlines here, and about five minutes after we left another brief skirmish erupted as Southern forces fired on what they say were two helicopter gunships, and then came under attack from a fighter jet.

'Squandered everything'

The tensions here are the result of failed diplomacy and brinkmanship during the long process that led to South Sudan winning independence last year without any final agreement on its exact borders or how to share the vast oil fields that straddle those borders, and on which both north and south now depend for their economic viability.

For years international sympathy has rested firmly with the southerners - victims of northern aggression and of a seemingly endless succession of humanitarian calamities - but in recent months South Sudan has begun to alienate many of its key backers with a series of rash reactions to northern provocations.

"Talk about shooting yourself in the foot," fumed one prominent western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, in South Sudan's capital, Juba.

"It's so frustrating - they've squandered everything in 10 months."

Image copyright AP
Image caption The African Union has called for both countries to cease hostilities

The South's most controversial move was to halt all oil production, after failing to agree on transit fees for the pipeline that runs north through Sudan.

Oil revenues account for some 90% of the government's budget, and the money will start to run out in six weeks.

The local currency is already under severe pressure, petrol queues are beginning to form, and President Salva Kiir's handling of a series of spiralling economic, diplomatic and military crises has left many foreign observers shaking their heads in disappointment.

And yet, in the crowded wards of Bentiu's civilian hospital, where wounded soldiers and bandaged children lie side by side, there is no sense of panic.

"We cannot share our oil - we are proud to die for it," said Karani Mayok, 28, who says he lost his left leg when a bomb was dropped from a Sudanese warplane on his village on 15 April.

"When we came to be independent from the north we knew there would be suffering, but we are ready to defend our land," said the medical director, Dr Peter Gatkuoth.

Still, he urged both sides to return to negotiations.

"We need to believe in peace. We share one name 'Sudan' in both north and south. Let us not go back to war. It is not good for all," he said.

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