JUBA/KHARTOUM (Reuters) - The armed forces of Sudan and South Sudan clashed in a border region claimed by both sides on Wednesday, in a rare direct confrontation between the old civil war foes.
Both countries said they would bring complaints against the other to the United Nations, moves likely to hinder already tense talks over issues such as oil and debt that have been unresolved since South Sudan seceded in July.
South Sudan’s military spokesman, Philip Aguer, said the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) bombarded the Jau area with warplanes and used artillery to hit positions of the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
“The SPLA is trying to repulse the attackers, the Sudan Armed Forces,” he told Reuters. “The first attack was on Saturday when SAF started invading ... It is in South Sudan, there is no dispute about that. Jau is deep in South Sudan.”
Al-Sawarmi Khalid, spokesman for Sudan’s military, confirmed the clashes, but said Jau was in Sudanese territory. “Now the Sudanese army controls the Jau area, which is inside the Republic of Sudan,” he said.
“South Sudan’s army tried to attack six times today. This is an assault on the Sudanese army and Sudanese land.”
Neither spokesman gave a casualty figure.
Each country has accused the other of backing rebel groups on either side of the border for months, but the fighting in Jau - which straddles the poorly defined border - was an unusual direct clash.
The fighting drove “several hundred” civilians from Jau towards the Yida refugee camp and also southwards, said Mimi Girard, an official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in South Sudan.
“Jau is a very strategic place so we feared that there would be more clashes and there were more attacks today,” she said.
Sudan’s foreign ministry spokesman, El-Obeid Morawah, accused South Sudan of attacking Sudanese territory on Tuesday and Wednesday, describing it as “blatant aggression against Sudan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
“The ministry filed a complaint today to the U.N. Security Council regarding this blatant aggression,” he said in an emailed statement.
South Sudan’s foreign affairs spokesman, Mathiang Ring, also said his country would complain to the Security Council.
“We will say that the government of Sudan has attacked and invaded a piece of land in South Sudan, in Jau. They captured one and killed one soldier,” he said.
“It is premature to say that the two sides are at war, but the South is now acting in self defence. We will not tolerate aggression by the north.”
The two sides were already at loggerheads over what transit fees South Sudan should pay to export its oil in pipelines running through Sudan, as well as a range of other post-secession issues like pensions and the border’s position.
A Western diplomat at the U.N. Security Council told Reuters the South Sudanese had written to the council on Monday about the fighting, but the letter had not been seen by all the council’s members yet.
“We would have expected the letter to have been circulated to all Council members by now in the usual way, but this hasn’t yet happened,” he said.
South Sudan voted overwhelmingly in January to secede in a referendum held under a 2005 peace deal that ended one of Africa’s longest and deadliest conflicts.
The civil war, waged over ethnicity, oil, religion and ideology, killed an estimated 2 million people.