The secretary-general of the United Nations on Thursday blasted U.S. ally South Sudan for seizing an oil town on its border with Sudan, calling the military move “an illegal act” and demanding that the country, which split from Sudan last year under a U.S.-brokered peace accord, withdraw its troops.
The statement by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was unusually harsh for the international body, which has peacekeepers in parts of South Sudan, which became an independent nation after years of conflict between Sudan’s Arab-led government and rebel forces in the south made up primarily of black Africans.
“I call on South Sudan to immediately withdraw its forces from Heglig,” Ban said, referring to the capture town. “This is an infringement on the sovereignty of Sudan and a clearly illegal act.”
The American envoy to the region took a much less aggressive tone in a conference call with reporters arranged by the State Department. Princeton Lyman said South Sudan had legitimate security concerns about the border and noted that Heglig remains in disputed territory. He said South Sudanese officials had assured him they wanted to avoid war, and that what mattered was not assessing blame but that “we have to find common ground.”
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Lyman’s statements, and their contrast with Ban’s, underscored the difficult position the Obama administration finds itself in after the South Sudanese offensive that resulted in the capture of Heglig last week. U.S. policy on Sudan and South Sudan has long been predicated on the idea that the primarily African South Sudanese are the victims of policies pushed by the Arab elite that runs Sudan, and the South Sudanese enjoy the support of a powerful lobby inside the United States.
But in recent months, South Sudan and its allied rebel movement in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains have rolled up an impressive series of military victories. In an interview with McClatchy on Wednesday in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, Lyman acknowledged that South Sudan’s capture of Heglig went “beyond self-defense.”
South Sudan’s goal is not yet clear. While its officials publicly state they want only to protect their borders from Sudanese incursion, the presence on the frontlines near Heglig of Justice and Equality Movement rebels from Sudan’s Darfur region suggest at a minimum coordination with a group that has vowed to overthrow the regime of Sudanese President Omar Bashir. A McClatchy correspondent who visited Heglig on Sunday reported earlier this week that South Sudanese officials secretly are delighted by their army’s capture of Heglig, which they consider a South Sudanese territory annexed illegally into the north in the 1970s. At the border itself, there is no talk of withdrawal, only of pushing the front lines further north.
On Thursday, Bashir came close to declaring war on South Sudan, saying Sudan would teach South Sudan a “final lesson by force,” according to news agency translations of his speech. On Wednesday, Bashir vowed to "liberate" South Sudan from its ruling party, which he repeatedly referred to as "insects," according to news reports.
Lyman said the United States “now is working with both countries in a very intense way” to try to resolve the current military conflict. He labeled the situation as dangerous.
The Arab League said that at Sudan’s request it had scheduled a meeting next week to discuss the crisis.
Ban issued a call for negotiations “in the name of humanity and in the interests of the people of both countries and the region.”
“The last thing the people of these two countries need is another war, a war that could claim countless lives, destroy hope and ruin the prospects of peace and stability and prosperity of all Sudanese people,” Ban said. “I urge both sides to exercise maximum restraint, return to the negotiation table and resolve their differences.”