Sudan denies its warplanes bombed disputed oilfield

KHARTOUM Mon Apr 16, 2012 10:23am BST

South Sudan's Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin addresses a news conference in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi April 2, 2012. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

South Sudan's Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin addresses a news conference in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi April 2, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

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KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan on Monday denied its warplanes had bombed an oilfield seized by forces from South Sudan and blamed the south for any damage to the facility during fighting that has raged since last week.

South Sudan's Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told reporters in Juba on Sunday that aerial bombardment of the oil facility in the Heglig region had caused serious damage. "They are bombing the central processing facility and the tanks to rubble," he said.

The fighting in the border area has drawn widespread condemnation from global powers and raised fears the former civil war foes could resume full-blown conflict.

The Heglig field was vital to Sudan's economy, producing about half of the 115,000 barrel-per-day output that remained in its control after South Sudan seceded in July, taking with it about three-quarters of the formerly united country's output.

"If any damage has occurred in Heglig it may have been on the part of the army of South Sudan. The Sudanese government charges South Sudan with any damage to the oil wells and facilities," Sudan's Information Minister Abdallah Ali Masar said, according to state news agency SUNA.

Production at Heglig stopped shortly after South Sudanese forces seized the area, officials say. Any prolonged shutdown would be a further blow to Sudan's economy, struggling with high inflation and currency weakening on the black market.

Landlocked South Sudan shut down its own 350,000 barrels a day of production in January in a dispute with Khartoum over how much it should pay to export crude via pipelines and other infrastructure to the Red Sea terminal at Port Sudan.

Sudan's army said on Saturday it entered the Heglig region and was just kilometres from the oilfield. South Sudan said Sudan's forces were still at least 30 km away and were bombarding the South's positions with warplanes.

Both sides regularly make conflicting claims and limited access to the remote region makes it difficult to independently verify their statements.

South Sudan's military spokesman, Philip Aguer, said the South's armed forces (SPLA) had brought 14 prisoners of war to Juba on Sunday, the first to arrive in the South's capital since the fighting in Heglig began.

He said Sudan's army had also shelled a location in the west of South Sudan's Upper Nile state on Sunday. "The army is trying to open other fronts," he said. Sudan's armed forces spokesman was not immediately available to comment.

The fighting has all but killed hopes the two sides will soon reach an agreement on disputed issues such as demarcation of their 1,800-km (1,200-mile) border, division of national debt and the status of citizens in each other's territory.

Sudan has quit talks over such issues and says it will not return to the negotiating table until the South leaves Heglig.

South Sudan says it will not withdraw unless the United Nations deploys a neutral force to monitor a ceasefire.

Many southerners refer to the Heglig area as Panthou and Juba insists the area is its rightful territory - a claim Khartoum contests fiercely.

(Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz and Khalid Abdelaziz; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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