Sudan bombards Bentiu as clashes with South Sudan escalate

McClatchy NewspapersApril 14, 2012 

BENTIU, South Sudan — Sudanese war planes on Saturday bombed a key state capital in South Sudan for the second time in three days in the latest escalation of a border conflict that has pushed the two old foes the closest that they've been in years to all-out war.

The bombing occurred just 30 minutes after a McClatchy correspondent arrived in Bentiu on a United Nations humanitarian flight. The U.N. plane had barely departed Bentiu when two Russian-made Sukhoi jets swooped in and unloaded six bombs that exploded in sudden repetition on a heat-stricken afternoon.

The raid killed at least five people, including four civilians, according to the director of the local hospital. It seemed aimed at a strategic bridge on the edge of town, near which four bombs fell, and an unknown target a few miles north of town, where two of the bombs fell.

The bombings near the bridge left several homes razed and smoldering, blackened metal bed frames the only objects left standing. One bomb there fell within feet of a tree that serves as a bus stop, where residents often sip tea, killing three members of one family.

Peter Yien Chuol, a graying elderly farmer, said he heard the planes and started running when the bombs fell. Blood flowed down from a wound in his temple and splattered down his shirt.

"Khartoum (Sudan's capital) has declared war on everyone in South Sudan," he said on a bench at the local hospital, awaiting treatment.

The bombing was the latest provocation in escalating border clashes by both Sudan and South Sudan in defiance of a 2005 peace deal between the two sides that was brokered heavily by the Bush administration. That agreement led to South Sudan's independence from Sudan last year, but fighting still rages on several fronts in both countries.

The bridge that was attacked Saturday is the only road crossing the Naam River and serves as a key logistical route for South Sudanese forces that in recent days have pushed north across the border into Sudan and captured Heglig, a major oilfield. On Saturday, Sudan's army entered Heglig and was fighting with South Sudanese forces near the oilfield, according to Reuters, which quoted a Sudanese military spokesman.

Heglig lies inside Sudan's borders but both sides claim it as theirs — and each accuses the other of starting the latest battles.

Sudanese planes have been steadily bombing in Heglig and in parts of South Sudan's Unity state for days, said Maj. Gen. Mac Bol, the deputy director of military intelligence for South Sudan, who was in Bentiu to monitor the fighting. Bentiu is the capital of Unity state.

Bol said that South Sudanese forces have pushed north of Heglig but said they had no intention of going into areas that they believe rightfully belong to Sudan.

"But of course we will go into any place where we think is within our territory," Bol said. Many South Sudanese believe that Khartoum unlawfully moved the border farther south during the 1970s.

This isn't the first time that the two armies have clashed or Sudanese bombs struck in recent months, but the attacks of the past few days have raised war fervor on both sides. Both economies are teetering after landlocked South Sudan announced in January that it would shut down its oil production, accusing Sudan of seizing its exports.

On Friday, South Sudanese demonstrated in the capital, Juba, voicing support for the military operation and calling for a march on Khartoum.

Later that day, a few hundred protestors gathered outside the United Nations peacekeeping base in Juba to denounce U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who had phoned South Sudanese President Salva Kiir asking him to withdraw from Heglig. In a rowdy speech on Thursday, Kiir told the Parliament that he had refused Ban's request, telling the U.N. leader, "I'm not under your command."

Rhetoric to the north in Khartoum has been equally charged, with President Omar al Bashir promising to mobilize for war and the Parliament holding an emergency war session. Negotiations between the two countries over oil and disputed borders have been indefinitely cancelled.

In what could amount to an ominous warning, a Sudanese warplane, a Russian-made Antonov, circled twice above Juba on Friday evening at 10:15 p.m, according to Bol. Some residents in Juba reported hearing a plane overhead Friday evening in online posts.

It was unclear whether the plane was on a military mission or was simply used to intimidate, but some South Sudanese noted a grim precedent. Three weeks ago, an Antonov buzzed over Bentiu — then, this week, the bombings here began.

Juba is a hub of United Nations staff and foreign aid organizations, so any air raid nearby would draw intense international criticism. But Bol said he didn't think such a move was out of the question because Sudan was now regularly bombing inside his country's territory anyway.

If Sudan does, Bol said, "we can also retaliate in other ways," but didn't elaborate.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)

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