AFP – Fresh violence erupted Wednesday between Sudan and South Sudan, with Juba claiming it had downed a Sudanese fighter jet as crisis talks to end a flare-up of hostilities adjourned without a deal.
But Khartoum denied its warplane had been shot down over the border town of Panakuach in South Sudan’s Unity State near their undemarcated border and the scene of heavy fighting last week that sparked international concern.
Last week’s unrest in an oil-rich region, involving air strikes and ground battles, was the worst since South Sudan gained independence from Sudan last July, triggering fears of all-out war between the two rivals.
“The forces of the Republic of South Sudan were able to shoot down and destroy one MiG-29,” South Sudan’s lead negotiator Pagan Amum told reporters in Addis Ababa, where the talks with Sudan ended without any deal signed.
Amum said Sudanese Defence Minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein had ordered air strikes against the garrison town of Panakuach just as the Khartoum delegation to the African Union-led crisis talks left the Ethiopian capital.
“This demonstrated very clearly the war-mongering posture and position of the government of Sudan.”
However, Sudanese army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad said in Khartoum that MiG-29s were not used against Unity state, which the South says has been repeatedly bombed from the air since border clashes began 10 days ago.
“What media reported, that we lost a fighter plane in Unity state, we confirm that is completely incorrect,” Saad told reporters.
In Addis, lead mediator Thabo Mbeki said South Sudan was ready to sign a peace deal, but that the Sudanese team had asked to return home for consultations before signing an agreement.
“The delegation of the government of Sudan felt that it had to take the document back to Khartoum because it felt that it was necessary … to have consultations in Khartoum,” the former South African president told reporters.
But South Sudan accused Khartoum of walking out of the talks.
“They have literally walked out… We are ready to sign but Khartoum ran,” said Amum. “It’s war mongering that made them not to sign and nothing else.”
However, Sudan’s Interior Minister Ibrahim Mahmoud said Khartoum was committed to end the fighting.
“We are committed to a cessation of hostilities… we are both committed that we are not going to support any rebels groups,” Mahmoud told AFP.
Top officials from the two countries met on Monday for the first face-to-face talks since the outbreak of last week’s fighting.
Mahmoud said talks will resume next week and voiced hope of a “concrete commitment from both of us that we will stop any support for any (rebel) groups”.
Mbeki denied the negotiations had reached an impasse and confirmed he would visit the leaders of both countries before talks reconvene.
“(We) will proceed to Juba to meet his excellency Salva Kiir to brief him … and then proceed to Khartoum to meet with President Omar al-Bashir for the same purpose.”
The two nations have traded blame over who started the border clashes involving air strikes and ground fighting in the oil-rich Heglig area close to the disputed border.
In February, they signed a non-aggression pact but it has been repeatedly violated in recent weeks.
Last week’s violence scuttled an April 3 summit between Kiir and Bashir, but the Sudanese interior minister said the leaders would meet after a security deal is signed.
Analysts said there were elements in Khartoum, as well as the South, opposed to moves towards warmer relations and suggested last week’s flare-up over Heglig was an effort to sabotage a rapprochement.
The United States meanwhile urged the two countries to cease fighting and return to negotiations.
“We’re calling on restraint on the part of all sides. And we’re very concerned about the ongoing hostilities on the border areas between Sudan and South Sudan,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.
“We call upon the parties to cease fighting and ensure the safety and security of civilians first and foremost and then to negotiate a solution to grievances under the auspices of the African Union,” he said.
US President Barack Obama earlier this week called South Sudan’s president to urge restraint and provided $26 million to tackle the developing refugee crisis.