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South Sudan Reinforces Positions Around Disputed Oil Town

Gabe Joselow | Nairobi April 13, 2012

South Sudan says it is consolidating forces around a contested oil-producing town that it seized from Sudan earlier this week. The United Nations and the African Union have called for South Sudan to withdraw from the town of Heglig, but Juba insists it has a claim to the territory. Sudan has threatened to reatliate.

The conflict is the closest the two countries have come to full-scale war since the south seceded from the north last year.

Deputy Defense Minister Majak D'Agoot told VOA that both countries are deploying more forces to the frontline.

“Both sides are raising strengths, they are building up, they are sending reinforcements to the front line. We know that Khartoum is mutually mobilizing; we are also consolidating our defenses," he said. "And so far, lines are static since the seizure of Heglig.”

Oil fields in Heglig produce about half of Sudan's total oil output. That output was sharply curtailed last year when the newly-independent south took over about three-fourths of Sudan's former oil production.

D'Agoot says the territory at Heglig has always belonged to South Sudan, and says Khartoum has used it to launch attacks on the south.

“Besides the fact that we wholly claim Heglig as part of South Sudan, the fact that it has been used as a launching pad, as a military base for launching operations against our troops in Unity State makes it a legitimate military target,” he explained.

Juba says Sudanese warplanes dropped at least five bombs Thursday on Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, killing one soldier.

D'Agoot says South Sudan would prefer a peaceful solution to the standoff, but said Khartoum had sabotaged AU-mediated negotiations by bombing southern territory.

The AU is calling for leadership from both President Omar al-Bashir and his South Sudan counterpart Salva Kiir, and says both countries are to blame for a dangerous level of tensions.

A hoped-for summit between the presidents has been called off. The situation is likely to take center stage at an African security summit in Lake Tana, Ethiopia this weekend.

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