Conflict in the Heglig Region of South Kordofan: Implications

By Eric Reeves

March 28, 2012 (SSNA) — The implications of very recent military actions by Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), including paramilitary militia forces, are not yet fully clear.  And indeed the greater the level of violence in the largely inaccessible border regions between (northern) Sudan and South Sudan, the less clear the situation will become—the "fog of war" will descend ever more fully. Nonetheless, on the basis of past actions and statements by the regime in Khartoum and by the Juba government, much can be discerned in what has been reported to date by wire services, which, while largely dependent on statements by the belligerents, also have important independent confirmations of particular claims, including from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). 

The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) seizure of Heglig on March 26, 2012, well inside South Kordofan, is a highly significant event, even as all evidence suggests that it is the result of an SPLA defensive counter-attack following SAF incursions to the south.  Given the potential for rapidly expanding war, involving direct conflict between the SAF and the SPLA, we should be as clear as possible about the antecedents to any such future violence.  Present military actions have already led Khartoum to suspend, perhaps with an eye to cancelation, the "summit" that was to have taken place in Juba beginning April 3 between President Salva Kiir of South Sudan and Khartoum’s President Omar al-Bashir.  The focus was to have been on outstanding issues between Khartoum and Juba that remain a source of tension and potential military violence.

The cause and effect relationship here, however, is not clear.  As several analysts have suggested today, it may well be that SAF generals launched these attacks in order to sabotage any true diplomatic rapprochement between north and South Sudan.  This is apparently the view of President Kiir, who was overheard saying yesterday, "’There are people of course who don’t want Bashir’s visit,’ Kiir said in an Arabic aside on Monday in an audio recording of his remarks obtained by McClatchy. ‘These are the people who are causing this fighting’"  (McClatchy New [Nairobi] March 27, 2012).  In any event, the seriousness of the events was underscored by the fact that the military seizure of a large area near Heglig was announced by President Kiir himself.  Certainly we may be sure that if he had not been confident of what he declared, he would not have spoken himself and events would have been reported through a spokesman.

Here it should also be noted that there are quite distinct track records on the part spokespersons for Khartoum and for Juba.  Khartoum’s primary military spokesman, Al-Sawarmi Khalid Saad, is a shameless liar and represents a regime that has only contempt for truths that are not self-serving.  If we look back at statements by Saad over the past couple of years, we can see that on countless occasions—whether in speaking about Darfur, Abyei, South Kordofan, or events along the North/South border—his claims and denials have been decisively disproved by follow-up investigations.  For example, following the November 10, 2011 aerial bombardment of Yida refugee camp—an attack well inside Unity State (South Sudan) and witnessed first-hand by two international news organizations, and later confirmed by UN investigators—Saad was adamant in his denial of SAF responsibility:

"Sudan Armed Forces spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad vehemently denied any links to the raid. ‘This information is completely false. We didn’t bomb any camps or any areas inside the borders of South Sudan,’ he told the AFP news agency.  ‘What is going on in South Sudan belongs to the southerners. We don’t have any links to this.’"  (Agence France-Presse, November 10, 2011)

Unsurprisingly, given such shameless mendacity, it is Saad who has been the chief spokesman for all recent military events.  The SPLA by contrast, has on occasion exaggerated or misrepresented events; but there seem to have been few occasions of pure fabrication.  This is but one more asymmetry between Khartoum and Juba that must be kept in mind in sorting through recent events.

The task is especially important given Khartoum’s relentless efforts to conflate two now clearly distinguishable military organizations: the SPLA of South Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N) in the northern states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile (the SPLA-N is also part of the Sudan Revolutionary Front [SRF], which includes Darfur rebel groups).  Khartoum has done all it can to obfuscate the distinction between the SPLA and the SPLA-N, and has repeatedly accused the SPLA of supporting the SPLA-N or of undertaking military actions that are in fact those of the SPLA-N.  And in a misguided concession to Khartoum, various international actors have accepted this conflation largely at face value.  Thus following Khartoum’s late February aerial attack on oil infrastructure deep within Unity State (South Sudan), the UN Security Council "demanded" (March 6, 2012):

" … that all parties cease military operations in the border areas and put an end to the cycle of violence.  It further demands that the Governments of Sudan and South Sudan take no action that would undermine the security and stability of the other, including through any direct or indirect form of support to armed groups in the other’s territory." (all emphases in quotations have been added)

On March 27 the Security Council, always threatened by a Chinese or Russian veto on matters relating to Sudan, preserved its perfect "equanimity" in a statement on current fighting:

"The Security Council calls upon the governments of Sudan and South Sudan to exercise maximum restraint and sustain purposeful dialogue in order to address peacefully the issues that are fuelling the mistrust between the two countries."

At the same time that the Security Council was blaming both sides for Khartoum’s earlier aerial attacks of late February, the U.S. State Department—without adducing a scrap of evidence to support its broader assessment—declared (March 1):

"The United States continues to stress to the Government of South Sudan the need to respect the sovereignty of Sudan and immediately end any military support for Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North rebels. The actions of both parties are inflaming conflict, fuelling mistrust, and imperiling the efforts of the African Union High-level Implementation Panel to facilitate agreements between the parties on outstanding Comprehensive Peace Agreement issues."

No matter that the African Union High-level Implementation Panel has proved hopelessly inept in its diplomatic roles—in Darfur, in dealing with the Abyei crisis, and in securing either a cease-fire or humanitarian access for Blue Nile and South Kordofan … more than nine months after Khartoum’s initial onslaught against Kadugli and other areas of South Kordofan.  And no matter that there is no specification of which "actions" by the SPLA (as opposed to the SPLA-N) are "inflaming conflict." 

As to mistrust, it is simply preposterous to speak of "trust" and the Khartoum regime in the same breath: these ruthless men have not abided by a single one of the countless agreements they have signed over 23 years in power, with the South or any other Sudanese party.  When US special envoy Princeton Lyman glibly suggests with that there is a lack of confidence between the two parties negotiating in Addis Ababa, Khartoum and Juba, he offers only a facile and dangerous half-truth.

For its part the European Union (March 8):

" … chided both Sudan and South Sudan for having taken ‘unilateral’ steps that are hindering peace talks between the two sides. ‘The unilateral steps taken by both sides have made it more difficult to reach a negotiated solution,’ Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said in a statement. Ashton ‘is seriously concerned about the escalation of violence and continued cross-border military activity including military operations, support for proxy militias and aerial bombing,’ Mann said."

Again, no evidence is provided of substantial assistance by Juba to "proxy" forces in northern Sudan; no specific "unilateral" actions by the SPLA are indicated in the EU statement; and there is no recognition of the ample evidence that the escalation of violence is dictated by Khartoum’s, not Juba’s, military actions and movements along the North/South border.  Here we should bear in mind that the South has no offensive ambitions, if only for reasons of self-preservation.  It does not need additional northern oil reserves, even as it remains the case that an economically distressed Khartoum is desperate for the oil revenues it lost with Southern independence. Certainly the evidence of the last year and a half consistently shows a remarkable restraint on the part of the Southern government in the face of relentless military provocations, including not only repeated aerial attacks on its territory, cross-border ground assaults, and the bombing of refugees, but Khartoum’s military seizure of Abyei (May 2011)—a seizure contravening not only the Abyei Protocol of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005), but the "final and binding" ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (July 2009). 

Perversely, this international restraint has made it easier for Khartoum to establish Abyei as not only a military fait accompli, but as Luka Biong, co-chairman of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee, has recently asserted (March 16, 2012), a legal one as well:

"’A week ago, I was shocked to know that there was a legal opinion by the United Nations defining Abyei as part of the north and subsequently all the organizations have to get their visa from the north.’"

The course of international responses to Abyei over the past year—from the time it became obvious that military seizure by the SAF was imminent (March 2011) to the present—provides a grimly instructive example of the expediency, cynicism, and disingenuousness we can expect to see if war does indeed break out between Sudan and South Sudan.

Again, in anticipation of moral equivocation by the international community in the event of renewed war, it is critical to bear in mind that none of the various actors urging "mutual" restraint upon Khartoum and Juba has provided any evidence of substantial SPLA support for the SPLA-N.  This is not to say that some assistance isn’t being provided, but the very lack of publicly producible evidence—evidence that Khartoum has the means to acquire and every incentive to make public—strongly suggests that any assistance is on a small scale and not necessarily at the behest of the leadership in either the SPLA or the government in Juba. 

Yet even yesterday, in finally acknowledging that Khartoum bears primary responsibility for current violence, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggests that an unspecified culpability also lies with the SPLA:

"’We think that the weight of responsibility rests with Khartoum because the use of heavy weaponry, bombing runs by planes and the like are certainly evidence of disproportionate force on the part of the government in Khartoum,’ Clinton said. ‘At the same time we want to see South Sudan and their allies or their partners … similarly participate in ending the violence and working to resolve the outstanding issues.’" (Associated Press [Washington, DC], March 27, 2012)

The last sentence is impossible to parse or construe in a fashion that doesn’t entail what is finally a fabrication of responsibility for Juba.  One wonders what Clinton would say now about the moral and diplomatic equities of the two parties when it comes to Abyei, given her insistence (November 2010) that the South needed to "compromise" yet again on the status of the region, this in the face of Khartoum’s diplomatic intransigence.

What we do have, however, is very substantial evidence of Khartoum’s arming and providing sanctuary to renegade militia groups in the South.  Most recently the Small Arms Survey has released a report (March 22) that highlights how the terrible ethnic violence in Jonglei has been exacerbated by the availability of small arms originating with George Athor’s brutal militia group:

"In 2011, the Small Arms Survey reported that then rebel leader George Athor armed scores of Nuer youth as a way of recruiting additional soldiers to strengthen his assault on installations belonging to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Jonglei state. Evidence gathered by the Small Arms Survey after the White Army attack seems to confirm this."

In turn, there is overwhelming circumstantial and other evidence that Athor, before his death, was receiving very substantial assistance—including arms, logistics, and sanctuary—from Khartoum.  SAS also provides evidence linking other militia groups, including the extremely violent South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA), to Khartoum’s arms supplies.  If some elements of the SPLA and Southern security forces have also been irresponsible in responding to the crisis in Jonglei, this in no way justifies Khartoum’s indiscriminate pouring of small automatic weapons into the region.

In short, there is an abundance of evidence—including public statements by senior regime officials such as Mustafa Osman Ismail—that Khartoum is arming and supporting immensely destructive militias in the South, which appear to have as their primary goal civilian destruction; this destruction includes the use of anti-tank mines, supplied by Khartoum, on routes traveled by civilians and humanitarians. Yet again, by contrast, it must be stressed that there is no publicly available evidence that the South is providing significant assistance to the SPLA-N—or indeed the means to do so. International failure to acknowledge this dramatic asymmetry only encourages Khartoum to continue arming militias operating in the South.

Cui bono?

And finally, we need to ask who benefits from offensive military actions, and more specifically, what could Juba gain from initiating a war in the oil regions?  The answer, of course, is that the South would gain nothing: the vast oil reserves that came with independence (July 2011) amount to 75 percent of the pre-independence total, and Juba knows perfectly well that even if it were to seize additional oil fields north of the border, it would have no way to secure them or transport the oil to market.  To be sure there is arable land in the disputed border regions, as well as populations that are ethnically, culturally, and politically tied to the South.  But having shown such restraint to date in the face of military aggression by Khartoum, including the seizure of the historically important Abyei region, it is extremely unlikely that Juba would attempt to settle differences militarily.

In stark contrast, Khartoum has every incentive to attempt to capture and hold Southern oil fields and infrastructure: the northern economy is imploding at a rate that is increasingly threatening to the Khartoum regime as it confronts Sudan’s own "Arab spring" demographic realities. The regime is also threatened by rapidly rising inflation that could soon skyrocket uncontrollably; the almost complete depletion of foreign currency reserves, making imports extremely difficult and expensive; a massive and extended budget shortfall, requiring an end to highly popular subsidies of petrol and sugar; an agricultural sector that has badly deteriorated; and contraction within the larger economy that may exceed 4 percent this year.  And there is debt, enormous external debt: $38 billion, which can’t be serviced let alone repaid.  Despite help from the Gulf Arab states and Iran, the economy appears ready to continue its downward spiral.  Indeed, even long-time and stalwart partner China recently canceled funding for an electricity project because Khartoum could not provide the necessary oil as collateral.

All this is well known to members of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party, as well as to those senior generals who have for the past year increasingly asserted their influence and control over key domestic policy decisions, including those involving war and peace.  Indeed it is in today’s Sudan Vision, the regime’s primary propaganda tool, its from the army that we learn: "By attacking Heglig in South Kordofan State, the South Sudan Government completely ruined all agreements concluded recently in Addis Ababa on the four freedoms, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) said." As John Ashworth notes today in connection with this announcement:

"It is significant that statements about national policy are coming from the army, not the government, and that the army is declaring that an agreement negotiated by the government is revoked. It reinforces the view that the army now plays a dominant role in the Khartoum regime, and further erodes the pretence that this is a democratic civilian government." (email received March 28, 2012)

In fact, that a "creeping military coup" was underway became fully clear in the wake of the June 28, 2011 Memorandum of Understanding signed in Addis Ababa by senior official Nafi’e Ali Nafi’e and representatives of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North; the MOU committed the two sides to seek a cease-fire and address outstanding political issues in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.  Three days later President al-Bashir, under pressure from the military, renounced the MOU and vowed to continue the campaign of "cleansing" in the Nuba Mountains, and only a month later, in Blue Nile. 

This fact seems to have been forgotten by the UN Security Council when it urged the "government in Sudan and the rebel group in Southern Kordofan [the SPLM/N] to negotiate a ceasefire and cooperated with the UN and allow unfettered food supplies and equipment to civilians affected by severe malnutrition" (Deutsche Presse Agentur [New York] February 14, 2012).  This is precisely what the SPLM/N agreed to on June 28, 2011—and what Khartoum’s al-Bashir adamantly rejected three days later.  And on the issue of humanitarian access, the UN seems not to be interested in what Reuters recently reports of al-Bashir’s attitude towards starvation in the Nuba Mountains last June following an engineered election that brought Ahmed Haroun to power as governor of South Kordofan:

"’If the people here refuse to honour the results of the election [in South Kordofan], then we will force them back into the mountains and prevent them from having food just as we did before.’" (Reuters, February 15, 2012)

When al-Bashir declares his regime will "prevent them from having food just as we did before," he is of course referring to the campaign of genocidal annihilation that Khartoum waged against the people of the Nuba in the 1990s. For his part, Ahmed Haroun has indicted by the International Criminal Court on multiple charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that the reason roughly 20 percent of the North/South border remains undelineated—and a much greater percentage undemarcated—is because Khartoum has long refused to participate in good faith in joint border delineation committees and has physically halted demarcation efforts that were actually underway, including in the Abyei region.  Here again, it is clearly in the interest of the South to have unambiguously demarcated borders, thus permitting international monitoring of border violations; Khartoum has no comparable interest, indeed benefits economically and militarily from the present border uncertainty.

Cui bono?  Who stands to benefit from offensive military action?  To ask the question clearly and precisely is to arrive at an answer.

What has been reported to date:

Early March 28, 2012: Agence France-Presse reports from Juba:

"Sudanese warplanes hit South Sudan’s oil-rich border region in a third day of violence between the rival states, as international concern mounted over a return to an all-out war. Fighting on the ground had reportedly ceased on both sides of the undemarcated border but dead bodies and destroyed tanks lay strewn in Sudan’s contested oil centre of Heglig, the site of bloody battles that began Monday. Smoke still rose from a damaged residence at the battle scene, said an AFP correspondent who saw three bodies. ‘The ground assaults this morning have stopped but they (Sudan) have still been bombing us in the night,’ said Gideon Gatpan, information minister for the South’s Unity state, which borders Heglig and the scene of heavy battles. ‘There was bombing in Panakwach, 35 kilometres (22 miles) from Bentiu,’ the state capital, Gatpan said, adding there were no reports of casualties. [ ] ‘There are still tensions and soldiers are preparing in case of fresh assault — we are expecting more bombing,’ Gatpan told AFP";

AFP also reports:

"’Sudan will not bomb South Sudanese territory and does not seek war with its neighbour,’ the foreign ministry said on Wednesday after the South alleged new air strikes. ‘We are not going to make any sort of shelling or any sort of bombing in South Sudanese territory,’ ministry spokesman Al-Obeid Meruh told AFP."

March 27: Aerial attacks by the SAF on oil installations in Unity State (South Sudan) were widely reported, including by Reuters, which interviewed not only Unity state information minister Gideon Gatpan but Vice President of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, Chom Juaj:

"’This morning as you called I heard the Antonov hovering over Bentiu town because it has just dropped some bombs in the main Unity oil fields,’ Unity state information minister Gideon Gatpan told Reuters. The Sudanese army could not be immediately reached but Asian oil consortium GNPOC operating in Unity state confirmed the bombing. ‘The warplanes are hovering everywhere …. One bomb actually just missed Unity base camp but anywhere else so far there is no information,’ said Vice President Chom Juaj." (Reuters [Juba/Khartoum], March 27, 2012)

This is a reprise of an earlier (February 29) attack on oil installations in Unity State—denied by Khartoum, even as the attack was subsequently confirmed by the UN and by widely circulated photographs of the damaged oil facilities:

"South Sudan’s government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin said two MiG aircraft dropped six bombs on oil fields in Unity State on Wednesday, violating a non-aggression pact signed by the two countries last month [February 2012]. ‘We will launch a very strong protest to the (United Nations) Security Council and we condemn this warlike attitude on the part of Sudan,’ Benjamin told reporters. He said there were no casualties in the attack roughly 74 km (46 miles) from the border that destroyed two well-heads and flow lines as well as two cars. The Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, a Chinese/Malaysian/Indian-owned consortium, runs the oil fields that South Sudan said were hit. In Khartoum, Sudan’s military spokesman Al-Sawarmi Khalid said Sudanese forces had not been involved in any bombing inside the south." (Reuters [Juba], March 1, 2012)

There have been approximately 40 confirmed such cross-border aerial attacks on South Sudan since November 2010, and condemnation has been tepid at best—certainly nothing that will deter Khartoum.  Moreover, Khartoum’s violation of a "non-aggression pact" with Juba—signed just days before this attack—was yet another example of the regime’s flagrant disregard for agreements it has made with various Sudanese parties.  Agreements mean absolutely nothing to this regime except what they expediently offer in the way of temporary advantage.

The apparent motive for the February aerial attack deep within the sovereign territory of South Sudan was what the SPLA-N reported as an enormous military victory by the forces of the SPLA-N at Tarogi, some 20 kilometers north of Jau town, which sits on the North/South border.  In fact, reporting on its February 26 victory, the SPLA-N spokesman referred to the victory as one in "the strategic Jau area."  The military success was sufficiently great that assessment was offered by Abdel Aziz el-Hilu, the brilliant military commander of SPLA-N forces in South Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains.  Specific claims included the capture of several tanks and heavy artillery pieces, 140 vehicles, 300 Dushkas (heavy Russian-made machine guns), and the destruction of two brigades of SAF soldiers.  The last element of the report, if true, is the most significant: two brigades represents an enormous military force, and if routed in the fashion described in the SPLA-N press release, seriously affects the balance of power in the border regions.  It is unsurprising, then, that Khartoum would retaliate by air; and having no way to attack the SPLA-N, would attack instead critical oil infrastructure in the South.

March 26, 2012

[Geographic correction to wire reportingJau is on the border between South Kordofan and the South’s Unity State at its northernmost point; Heglig is some 75 kilometers to the southwest of Jau.  Jau is of strategic military significance, not because of its oil reserves; Heglig, by contrast, is the epicenter of the oil region of South Kordofan.  In the July 2009 determination by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, Heglig (and Bamboo) oil sites were excluded from the newly delineated Abyei.  Though disappointed with the decision, the SPLM accepted it, leaving only Diffra oil site in Abyei. Diffra was of course seized along with the rest of the PCA-determined Abyei region on May 21, 2012. Fighting is reported by the SPLA to have occurred both in the Jau area and south of Heglig.  See comment below by President Salva Kiir on the SPLM view of Heglig.]

On March 26 the reports from a wide range of wire services established the following on the basis of multiple interviews (though of course largely without the possibility of independent verification):

•The Sudan Tribune, in a dispatch dated March 26, 2012 but which appeared only the morning of March 27, reported:

"The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) bombed oilfields in South Sudan’s Unity State on Tuesday morning in an escalation of large scale clashes that began on Monday.  Sudan Tribune’s reporter in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State, said that at 9am local time he saw SAF warplanes dropping bombs on oil fields located 20 km from Rukotana town. News of the bombing has also been carried by Reuters which cited confirmation by the oil firm Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), a joint venture between China, India, and Malaysia."

•Agence France Presse reported from Juba on President Salva Kiir’s assessment of the military events of the day: "’This morning the (Sudanese) air force came and bombed… areas in Unity state,’ Kiir said, adding his troops had fought back and taken the key northern oil field of Heglig. ‘After this intensive bombardment our forces…. were attacked by SAF (Sudan Armed Forces) and militia,’ he added, speaking at the opening of a ruling party meeting in the southern capital Juba. ‘It is a war that has been imposed on us again, but it is they (Khartoum) who are looking for it,’ said Kiir, adding that he did not want conflict to resume."

"Kiir said Southern troops, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), had on Monday driven northern forces back across the undemarcated border and seized Khartoum’s Heglig oil field, parts of which are claimed by both sides. ‘They attacked our forces and our forces were able to repulse them … and they ran," Kiir added. ‘The last information that came to me was that our forces have also taken over Heglig.’"

"[SPLA spokesman Philip] Aguer said, but also added the army was not wanting the clashes to spiral into war. ‘This was an act of self-defence on behalf of the SPLA, and we still commit ourselves to all the security agreements between us — despite all this fighting we are committed to peace," Aguer added. He claimed a full Sudanese army battalion — potentially up to 1200 soldiers — had crossed the border before being pushed back …. "

•The Sudan Tribune reported: "[President] Kiir underscored that his country has long been convinced that Heglig belonged to South Sudan but that he was willing to get it back legally and through negotiations. ‘Khartoum must blame the existing groups from within it that want to drag the two countries into war,’ Kiir said before adding that SPLA’s takeover of Heglig was necessitated by the current situation. ‘We said many times that we do not want war but they wanted it and we did not intend to recover Heglig by force but through peace and law but they wanted [a show of] power so [we] let them see it,’ Kiir added.

"Philip Aguer, the spokesman for the SPLA, also confirmed the fighting, adding that when speaking to ground troops at 5pm on Monday evening, the conflict was ongoing. He said there were currently an unknown number of casualties and that the conflict was ‘an act of self-defense’ on Juba’s part. He contradicted what Kiir said about SPLA controlling all of Heglig but said that parts of the area were now under control of the southern army. ‘After repulsing the attack, the SPLA pursued the withdrawing SAF force and they captured two bases of SAF between Heglig and Teshwin,’ the SPLA said. ‘We still commit ourselves to all the security agreements between us. Despite all this fighting we are committed to peace,’ he said.

"Multiple sources in Heglig speaking to Sudan Tribune said that clashes are ongoing around the area and that gunfire can be heard but denied that SPLA has taken control. They said that the SPLA appears to be approximately six kilometres outside of Heglig suggesting that it could launch a fresh assault at night.

Oilfields workers have been evacuated while SAF has taken positions inside the town in preparation for a possible attack. The attacking forces appeared to have targeted an army garrison close to Heglig, the sources said, leaving two tanks destroyed. They added that the assailants overlooked the oil pumps and focused on SAF units."

•The Sudan Tribune also reported: "The President of Sudan, Omer Hassan Al-Bashir, on Monday decreed the establishment of a committee to undertake “mobilization of Jihadists”, appointing first Vice-President Ali Osman Mohammad Taha as its chairman. Earlier this month, Al-Bashir ordered full mobilisation of the paramilitary Popular Defense Forces (PDF) in the wake of increased tension with neighbouring South Sudan …. "

•"Khartoum has played down the fighting as ‘minor clashes.’" (Associated Press [Nairobi] March 27, 2012)

A brief reverse chronology of significant events in March leading to conflict in the Heglig region:

[ For a detailed chronology of events before January 1, 2012, see:  ]

[ For an historical analysis and data compilation of aerial attacks directed against civilians and humanitarians since 1999, see: ]

March 23: senior U.S. and British dramatically stepped up pressure on Juba to "stop its support to the SPLA-N rebels"; British Minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, calls on "both governments [in Khartoum and Juba] to take steps immediately to fulfill their commitment to establish a safe demilitarized border zone, to be jointly monitored by UN peacekeeping forces and the armed forces of both countries"  (Sudan Tribune);

March 21: UN received reports of large-scale movement of SAF troops south/southwest of Heglig toward the N/S border areas (confidential source);

March 22Khartoum declared that it is still "considering" a proposal from the UN, AU, and Arab League for desperately needed humanitarian access to South Kordofan and Blue Nile; the SPLA-N signed the agreement on February 9, and Khartoum had declared on February 7 that it "welcomed" the proposal;

•March 22: "An Iranian pilotless plane 3-1-R031 that was used by Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) to spy on the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) PLA on 13th/03/2012 was yesterday brought to Juba and displayed before the media" ( [Juba]);

•March 20The Citizen (Juba) reported that a "Sudan Armed Forces Antonov plane bombed SPLA positions in Jau yesterday, according to the press release copied to The Citizen by the office of the army spokesperson Col Philip Aguer Panyang";

March 21Reuters reported in detail from Doro Camp, Upper Nile (South Sudan) that "For Sudan’s Blue Nile refugees, hunger is ‘like a weapon’";

March 18: Al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste, reporting from the Nuba Mountains, found "[Khartoum] still needs to give way to allow a lot of the aid agencies to bring desperately needed food and medical supplies into this region. We saw people up in the hills who are absolutely starving" (from the Nuba Mountains);

•March 19: "A senior member of the Sudanese rebels operating in South Kordofan and Blue Nile on Monday accused Sudan Armed Forces of mobilising 45,000 fighters, mainly from their paramilitary Popular Defence Forces to launch attacks against civilian population in areas under their control" (Sudan Tribune);

•March 15: The Satellite Sentinel Project (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative) reported on satellite of an Antonov bombing attack in progress over South Kordofan;

•March 13: The New York Times reported on SAF use of Chinese long-range rockets to attack civilians and other targets in South Kordofan:

"The rockets, fired from more than 25 miles away, travel at 3,000 miles per hour and pack a 330-pound warhead often loaded with steel ball bearings to increase lethality, experts say. Where they land is random, witnesses say, and they often slam into villages instead of legitimate military targets.  ‘They arrive without any warning,’ said Helen Hughes, an arms control researcher at Amnesty International. ‘And they are being used indiscriminately, which is violation of international humanitarian law.’  According to [American relief worker Ryan] Boyette, more than 70 rockets have been fired into the Nuba Mountains since December, killing 18 people, including several children.

"From photographs of bombsites and remains of the rocket motors, Western experts have identified the rockets as Chinese-manufactured Weishi truck-launched rockets. China is one of Sudan’s closest strategic allies, buying billions of dollars of Sudanese oil and selling Sudan advanced weaponry.  The Sudanese government does not deny using rockets in the Nuba Mountains, insisting that they are a legitimate weapon. ‘Rockets are part of combat,’ said Al-Sawarmi Khalid, a Sudanese military spokesman";

•March 11: Reuters reported from London on the findings of Mukesh Kapila during his recent trip into the Nuba Mountains (Kapila was the outspoken chief UN humanitarian official in Sudan at the time Khartoum launched its genocidal counter-insurgency war in Darfur in early 2003): "Sudan hosted the first genocide of the century in Darfur, and the second one is unfolding in Nuba.’"

Foreign Policy reported: "Kapila, who traveled to the Nuban Mountains with a rebel escort, said he witnessed a veritable wasteland. ‘What did I see?  Basically, as you drive in, you see totally deserted countryside, burnt village after burnt village after burnt village’";

March 8: For the British humanitarian organization HART, Tim Flatman reports on his recent findings in Abyei, almost a year after Khartoum’s military seizure of the region: "Food security will continue to be poor for some time. This is true and will this year be true of many areas of South Sudan, but in Abyei north of the river Kiir, people are starving now."

"Some returnees confirmed stories I had heard in Agok about displaced people in Warrap being denied land to bury relatives who had died of starvation. In these conditions, why not return even if there may not be food or water or medicine in your place, I was asked";

•March 5: The Sudan Tribune reported on Khartoum’s threat to expel the U.S. mission if there is any further talk of famine in Abyei, South Kordofan, or Blue Nile:

"The Sudanese government threatened on Monday to expel the United States diplomatic mission if Washington continues to propagate claims of famine in the country’s war hit regions of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.  ‘We have informed the US deputy chief of mission in Sudan, Dennis Hankins, that unless they quit their propaganda of famine in the three areas, we will expel them,’ Sudan’s minister of international cooperation, Ishraqa Said Mahmoud, said in a press conference in the capital Khartoum";

•March 3: The Sudan Tribune reported on the plans of al-Bashir: "On Saturday Bashir said he soon planned to pray in the SPLM-N stronghold of Kauda [in the center of the Nuba Mountains] just as he had done in Kurmuk the former stronghold of the rebels in Blue Nile state";

•March 3: The Sudan Tribune reported on plans to expand the role of the brutal paramilitary force used in Sudan’s long civil war:

"The Sudanese President Omer Hassan al-Bashir vowed to flush out remaining rebel pockets in South Kordofan as he ordered the setting up of camps across the country for the Popular Defence Forces. [The] Sudan Armed Forces [are] fighting insurgencies on multiple fronts in the western region of Darfur and in the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. South Sudan stands accused by Khartoum of aiding the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North."

•March 1: AFP reported from Juba:

"Sudanese fighter jets have bombed oil and water wells deep inside South Sudan and its ground troops have crossed into contested oil-rich border regions, South Sudan officials said Thursday. ‘They have flown into our territory 74 kilometres (46 miles) and are violating South Sudanese airspace,’ South Sudan Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said of the air strikes Wednesday. Sudanese ground troops had also moved 17 kilometres inside South Sudan’s oil-rich Unity state, army spokesman Philip Aguer said. Khartoum and Juba dispute areas along the undemarcated border. South Sudan has accused the north of carrying out several recent bombing raids in frontier regions, but the claims have been denied by the Sudanese army.

"’Two MiG (fighter jets) bombed Panakuat in Pariang county,’ Aguer told AFP on Thursday, adding two bombs struck an oil well and a drinking water well. ‘Khartoum… have been bombing South Sudan since last year, but this is the first time MiGs have come,’ Aguer said, adding that previous attacks had been far less accurate bombs rolled out the back of Antonov aircraft."

[Khartoum and Juba had signed a "non-aggression pact" on February 10, only three weeks before this reported attack.]

Reuters reported from Juba the same day:

"South Sudan’s army spokesman Philip Aguer said Sudanese forces were assembling near a base in an area close to the disputed border in Unity State.

‘Yesterday evening SAF have been moving forces, heavy machine guns and vehicles to within 500 metres of an (army) base in Peshwien, very close to the border which we are waiting to be demarcated,’ he said."

Eric Reeves is a Sudan researcher and analyst at Smith College, and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide (Key Publications/Canada, 2007); he has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade.

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