The army of South Sudan – the SPLA – moved into Heglig - an oil-producing area that is disputed with Sudan, from which it was finally split in 2011. Fighting has been deadly in the oil rich area along the border. Dozens of Sudanese troops and civilians have been reported dead, while the road leading south from Heglig is now littered with charred buses and armoured vehicles, and human bodies. South Sudan vows to keep moving north and keep the territory for its own. For its part, Sudan has declared that no price is too much to keep the petroleum producing deposits. The Heglig area produces approximately half of Sudan’s oil, which is vital for the Muslim-dominated north and its largely Chinese and Indian investors.
SPLA spokesmen said that Sudan’s military bombed an oil well outside Heglig on April 16 that continued to burn on April 17. Troops from north of the disputed border are opening other fronts, while the SPLA are on alerg in Western Baah el Ghazal state. Fighting along the border has been intense. Sudan’s armed forces continue to bomb areas north of Unity State more than twice a day, according to SPLA spokesmen. SPLA soldiers occupy deserted oil facilities at Heglig, as well as a former Sudanese Army base in Heglig.
The former market at Heglig now serves as a forward base for SPLA forces from which they scan the front line through a dry forest and a road that may be littered with mines. Sudanese forces are close by.
Sudan appears to have an upper hand as to aircraft. A SPLA spokesman announced that on April 16, the SPLA shot down a Sudanese MIG-29 aircraft flying over Heglig. The air forces of the Sudanese government based in Khartoum has conducted bombing sorties in areas besides the disputed Heglig area. According to the SPLA, bombing raids have been conducted at Bentiu, an oil producing area in South Sudan, and a refugee camp managed by the United Nation near Mayom, in the South Sudanese state of Unity. According to the authorities in the capital of South Sudan, Juba, these two air strikes claimed at least nine civilian lives were killed, including a pregnant woman, and there were another 22 wounded.
Russian-made Antonov helicopters belonging to Sudan fly sorties over South Sudan, dropping bombs. A spokesman for the SPLA said that Sudanese aircraft are flying covers over Juba, underscoring the northern neighbor’s apparent control of the skies.
Tension is fueled even more due to the resolution passed by the Sudanese parliament in Khartoum that defined the government of South Sudan as an "enemy," while legislators urge to put an end to the power of the SPLM (the former rebel movement that governs South Sudan). "We see the government of South Sudan as an enemy and the Sudanese state institutions must treat it as such," reads the text of the resolution. "We declare that we will confront the [Sudan People Liberation Movement] SPLM until we end its rule of the South, and will work to gather our resources to realize this aim," said the declaration.
The resolution resembles a declaration of war. However, its legality is not certain since, according to the Constitution, only the President has the power to declare hostilities. Its approval, however, reflects the tension among the institutional leaders in Khartoum for the loss of Heglig. In New York, Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman said last week that if South Sudan does not withdraw, Sudan will "hit deep inside the south."
South Sudanese authorities in Juba have replied by saying that they do not consider Sudan as an enemy. The southern Sudanese have also insisted that their troops will abandon Heglig only when Sudan stops the aerial bombardment and evacuates Abyei, another contested border area, rich in oil.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said she was alarmed by the South's "unwarranted" occupation of Heglig. However, she condemned the North's bombing campaign against the South. "I condemn the indiscriminate aerial bombing by Sudanese forces in civilian areas in South Sudan, including in Mayom and Bentiu in Unity State, resulting in the deaths of at least 8 civilians and many injuries since Saturday," she stated.
Petroleum is important to the economies of both Sudan and South Sudan. "Despite the high cost of the war, despite the destruction that the war can cause ... our options are very limited. We can tolerate some sacrifice, until we can liberate our land," said Sudan's ambassador to Kenya, Kamal Ismail Saeed, according to the AP. "So from our side, yes, it is expensive but that doesn't deter us or that doesn't stop us from exerting all effort to liberate our land," he told reporters in Nairobi. "We have been in war without oil for several years and we survived ... As a matter of fact ... the good news (is) we have developed other sources and fields of oil and that will really compensate our loss."
Heglig is vital to Sudan's economy because it accounted for half the 115,000 barrels per day that remained in its control when South Sudan seceded in July 2011. The field's output has stopped due to the fighting, officials say. Landlocked South Sudan, which is inhabited mostly by Christians and adherents of animist faiths, had already closed its 350,000 bpd output after negotiations broke down over the price it would have to pay to export via Sudan's pipelines, a Red Sea port and other facilities.
Fighting in Sudan was almost constant from 1955 to 2005, in disputes over religion, oil, ideology and ethnicity. The demarcation of the 1,200 mile border between the two warring halves is also a thorny issue, as well as the division of debt. There are tensions in the north, which were made evident when on April 17 the police academy dismissed its South Sudanese students after "their violation of police regulations and their celebration of the occupation of Heglig," according to the interior minister in Khartoum.
Ambassador Saeed insisted the government in Khartoum could weather the current fighting, even while food prices soared and the local currency tanked. The government of Sudan appears confident that new oilfield can be brought on line in the west of the Kordofan region, in Darfur and in the states of White Nile and Blue Nile, and would offset much of the loss of Heglig's output. "We used to produce 115,000 barrels a day before the attack, we lost about 40,000, and now we'll get another 30,000," said the diplomat.
South Sudan insists it is the rightful owner of Heglig and will not withdraw its troops unless the United Nations deploys peacekeeping forces to monitor a ceasefire. Saeed said that was unacceptable. "They have two options: either to withdraw very quickly or withdraw. We will reserve the right to use all means at our access to kick them out of there, and we will do it," he said. "They will be thrown out of there very soon."
Another disputed area, Abyei, which is prized for its fertile land and oil, was seized by Khartoum in May 2011 after the SPLA attacked a Sudanese army convoy. A mass exodus of tens of thousands resulted. The UN Security Council authorized the deployment of 3,800 U.N. peacekeepers in Abyei in June 2011, and now expressed fears that militia forces are now building up in Ayei. More than 2 million people died in Sudan’s civil wars, in an area that is often plagued by droughts and famine.
The stakes are high for other geopolitical players in the Sudanese sandbox: China, India, and Malaysia.
The Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company is a joint venture seeking to exploit oil and gas resources in Sudan, being formed in 1997 and managed from Khartoum. It subsequently built the Greater Nile Oil Pipeline, which links Sudan's inland oil fields with refineries at Khartoum and Port Sudan. Its concessions in the Western Upper Nile area includes the large Unity and Heglig oil fields, plus smaller fields at El Toor, El Noor, Toma South, Bamboo, Munga and Diffra.
Stakeholders in GNPOO are:
China National Petroleum Corporation: 40%
Petronas Carigali Overseas of Malaysia: 30%
ONGC Videsh (the overseas arm of ONGC) of India: 25%
Sudapet of Sudan: 5%