CAIRO – The Arab League on Thursday condemned South Sudan's "military aggression" against an oil-rich border region claimed by Sudan while also supporting Sudan's right to defend itself. The statement came as some fear growing disputes between the two countries may soon lead to an all-out war.
South Sudan seceded from Sudan last year after a referendum held as part of a 2005 peace deal that ended more than 20 years of civil war, but unresolved issues such as the sharing of oil revenues and demarcation of the border have led to tensions and clashes.
Earlier this month, South Sudanese troops attacked and captured the oil-rich Heglig area. Sudan says it has since recaptured it. Earlier this week, after South Sudan said it was withdrawing its troops from Heglig, Sudan dropped bombs on the South. The U.N. said the bombs killed 16 civilians.
Sudan is a member of the Arab League, whose foreign ministers were meeting in Cairo. Their statement called on South Sudan to respect the borders between the two nations and to stop supporting rebel movements in Sudan's western Darfur region, south Kordofan and Blue Nile.
The meeting, said the statement, "rejects any claims that the Heglig area is disputed," meaning it belongs to Sudan.
The Arab League also called for an international fact-finding mission to assess the damage caused by the attack on Heglig. It said the two nations must resolve their differences through negotiations and called on League members to offer immediate financial aid to Sudan to rebuild oil installations in Heglig.
South Sudan is mainly animist and Christian, and its people are linguistically and ethnically linked to sub-Saharan Africa. The north is overwhelmingly Muslim, and many members of the government consider themselves Arabs.
Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir gave a fiery speech last week in which he said there will be no negotiations with the "poisonous insects" who are challenging Sudan's claim to disputed territory near the border. He also threatened to topple the South Sudan government in Juba.
U.S. and U.N. leaders have pushed both sides to end fighting and resume negotiations.
A South Sudan official said Sudan bowed to international pressure and didn't resume attacks on the south Thursday after the violence ebbed earlier in the week.
"They have realized that what they are doing, nobody is happy about it," South Sudan government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin said. "It has dawned on them, they are the ones who declared war, they are the ones calling us insects. I think they are beginning to feel the pressure."
The African Union also has said both countries should cease hostilities. The AU's Peace and Security Council issued a seven-point roadmap calling for a halt to the fighting and giving Sudan and South Sudan two weeks to restart negotiations, which broke down earlier this month.
The AU also warned the two countries against making inflammatory statements and propaganda against each other, which could fuel the conflict.
Onyiego reported from Bentiu, South Sudan.