By Jenny Vaughan / AFP
ADDIS ABABA: African Union mediators Sunday redoubled their efforts to kick start crisis talks between Sudan and South Sudan after fresh fighting that Khartoum accuses Juba of backing.
Teams from both nations have been in the Ethiopian capital since Saturday, but so far there have been no bilateral Khartoum-Juba talks. Each team has met separately with the mediators headed by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who has imposed a media blackout on proceedings.
People close to the talks, held at a luxury hotel, said the aim was still to get a bilateral meeting going later Sunday.
The talks were called amid international alarm and fears of return to a wider war following fighting between troops from the north and South last Monday and Tuesday in the oil-rich Heglig region close to the disputed border — the most serious clashes since South Sudan’s independence in July.
The AU, UN Security Council and European Union have all called for an end to the fighting, with the US blaming Khartoum for most of it.
The clashes led Sudan to call off a planned April 3 summit between the presidents of the two nations.
Fresh fighting Friday over the strategic town of Talodi, which Sudan accused the South of backing, delayed the departure of the Sudan delegation and raised doubts as to whether the negotiations could proceed.
Sources close to the talks confirmed technical-level meetings had been going on since Wednesday.
Along with Foreign Minister Nhial Deng Nhial, Juba’s ministers of defense, justice and parliamentary affairs were at the meeting venue, as was their chief negotiator Pagan Amum.
While the talks with the mediators went ahead here, the Sudanese army spokesman, Sawarmi Khaled Saad, alleged late Saturday that a battalion of South Sudanese troops had crossed the contested border and was moving towards Talodi.
Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the South Sudanese army, denied the claim.
“That is not true. We don’t have any SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) from South Sudan that have crossed to South Kordofan. If anyone is doubting us, let them send monitors,” he said, accusing Khartoum of wanting to “invade Unity state and take the oil fields.”
This latest accusation followed the Sudanese army’s charge late Friday that South Sudan sent cannons and tanks to back a rebel attack on Talodi, in South Kordofan state about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the nearest point on the unclear frontier.
The army said it repulsed the attack but the rebels were building up forces elsewhere because their leaders “and South Sudan want to continue their attack on Talodi”.
The Sudanese army also alleged South Sudan and rebels from another group, the Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), were building up forces south of Heglig in preparation for another attack.
JEM rebels denied any involvement in the previous Heglig fighting.