Sudanese war jets launched four missiles into this key South Sudanese state capital Monday, killing at least one and wounding 10 others as tensions continued to rise along the disputed South Sudan-Sudan border.
The jets appeared to be targeting a bridge on the only road linking Bentiu with the conflict zone to the north, where Sudanese and South Sudanese troops last week fought a pitched battle for control of Heglig, an oil town that had long been controlled by Sudan.
A car filled with journalists, including a McClatchy correspondent, had barely crossed the bridge when a missile struck 50 yards away, spouting a dark plume of smoke into the air.
Another missile struck a nearby market, incinerating a row of stalls made of wood and grass and killing a young boy, whose charred body lay crumpled nearby. Ten civilians were wounded, including three children.
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It was the fourth aerial attack in 10 days on Bentiu but the first since South Sudan announced Friday that its troops had pulled out of Heglig, raising the specter that Sudan would now march south of the recognized border in retaliation.
There was no sign that either side was backing away from the confrontation. Sudanese President Omar Bashir delivered a fiery speech in Heglig on Monday, vowing "no negotiation with those people," according to an account by the French news agency AFP.
Meanwhile, at the South Sudanese barracks on the edge of Bentiu, top generals, some of whom had just flown in, drank tea under trees, discussing strategy and suggesting that a new South Sudanese offensive might be in the offing.
"Yesterday they attacked us, and now they are continuing to attack us. What next?" said Obuto Mamur, the South Sudanese military’s deputy chief of staff.
Asked if South Sudan would consider retaking Heglig in response to the aggression, Mac Paul, the deputy head of military intelligence, said that was "one of the options."
"This is a serious escalation," he said of the aerial attacks.
Why South Sudan pulled out of Heglig on Friday was still largely open to conjecture. South Sudanese officials say the retreat was in response to calls from the United States and the United Nations that it withdraw.
But evidence continued to mount Monday that South Sudanese forces were driven back by a fierce Sudanese counteroffensive.
Accounts from soldiers back from the front lines indicate that the South Sudanese army came under heavy attack on Thursday. The South Sudanese quickly fell back from positions north of Heglig, then abandoned Heglig itself under heavy aerial bombardment.
On Sunday, the two armies clashed near the old border, at Tishwin. South Sudan claimed the Sudanese army briefly entered undisputed South Sudanese territory, a claim impossible to verify because neither side has given access to the front lines in recent days.
Sudan denied that it planned to carry the fight into South Sudan. Sudan "has not and does not intend to" attack South Sudan, said the Sudanese Foreign Ministry in a statement emailed to reporters after Monday’s airstrikes on Bentiu.
Evidence of Sudanese air force bombing was clear, however, north of Bentiu, where craters filled with shrapnel could be found in the cracked earth, the result of Sudanese bombing. It was unclear whether the target had been South Sudanese oilfields, which line both sides of the road from Heglig to Bentiu, or military positions nearby.
One hope for peace is that the Sudanese army might be ill-pressed to carry the fight into South Sudanese territory, given the many rebel fronts it already faces in Sudanese territory.
The biggest insurgency it faces is in the Nuba Mountains, which border South Sudan, where rebels allied with the South Sudanese government are gaining ground. The strategic Sudanese town of Talodi has come under heavy attack in recent days by the rebel forces there.