* Two sides issue conflicting claims over fighting
* Sudan trying to open new front, South says
* Egypt says seeks to contain border tensions (Adds details, reference to
By Ulf Laessing and Alexander Dziadosz
JUBA/KHARTOUM, April 15 (Reuters) - South Sudan accused Sudan of bombing a
disputed major oil field "to rubble" on Sunday but Khartoum denied that and
said it would not negotiate until Juba withdrew all its troops from the same
South Sudan's Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told reporters in
Juba the aerial bombardment of the facility - in the Heglig region - had
caused serious damage.
"They are bombing the central processing facility and the tanks to rubble as
we speak," he said.
Sudan's state minister for information denied the charge, however, telling
Al Jazeera television that Sudan "did not and will not" destroy the oil
Fighting between the two neighbours has already halted production at the
facility, depriving Sudan of about h alf of its 115,000-barrel-a-day oil
Both sides regularly make conflicting claims and limited access to the
remote region makes it difficult to independently verify their statements.
But the seriousness of the allegations underscored how close the two former
civil war foes are to the brink of a full-blown war as the worst fighting
since Juba declared its independence in July continued apace.
On Tuesday, South Sudan seized control of the Heglig oilfield, drawing an
angry response from Khartoum which vowed to recapture the region.
On Sunday, South Sudan's military (SPLA) spokesman Philip Aguer said by
phone that Sudanese aircraft were continuing efforts to dislodge southern
forces from the area, subjecting them to an aerial bombardment.
"There has been intensive air bombardment against our position in Heglig
since the morning," he said, adding there had been no ground fighting there
Sudan's army had also shelled a western part of South Sudan's Upper Nile
state, in an apparent attempt to open a new front, he said.
A spokesman for Sudan's armed forces did not immediately answer calls to his
mobile phone for comment. The Sudanese army said it had entered the Heglig
region on Saturday, but South Sudan denied that.
Worsening violence in recent weeks has all but killed hopes that the two
countries will reach a swift agreement on disputed issues such as the
demarcation of their 1,800-km (1,200-mile) border, the division of national
debt and the status of citizens in each other's territory.
Sudan has already pulled out of talks over those and other issues. It says
it will not return to the negotiating table until the South pulls out of
"Sudan reiterated its stated and fixed position that it will not negotiate
with South Sudan unless it withdraws its forces from the Heglig region,"
state news agency SUNA reported on Sunday, citing President Omar Hassan
EGYPT STEPS IN
Few casualty figures have been released since fighting began, but South
Sudan's Benjamin said on Sunday that 19 of his government's troops had been
killed and 33 wounded since the outbreak of violence.
He also claimed that 240 Sudanese troops had been killed, numbers impossible
to independently verify.
The two sides fought one of Africa's longest and deadliest civil wars, which
ended in 2005 with a peace deal that paved the way for the South's
Egypt, which borders Sudan to the north, is mounting a diplomatic offensive
to try to defuse the current tensions.
Egypt's Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr arrived at Khartoum airport on
Sunday for talks.
"We are trying to preserve blood and resources and find a peaceful solution,
because this issue does not just concern the two countries, but all their
neighbouring countries," he told reporters in Khartoum, adding he will
travel to Juba on Monday.
Global powers have widely condemned South Sudan's seizure of Heglig, urging
the two sides to stop fighting and return to talks. South Sudan says Heglig,
which many southerners refer to as Panthou, is its rightful territory, an
assertion Khartoum hotly contests.
The border clashes come as Sudan is battling armed insurgencies in its
western Darfur region as well as in its border states of South Kordofan and
Khartoum accuses South Sudan of supporting the rebels in those areas. Juba
Both nations are also under increasing economic pressure from a loss of oil
Landlocked South Sudan shut down its own output - about 350,000 barrels a
day - in January after failing to agree how much it should pay to export
crude via pipelines and other infrastructure in Sudan.
Inflation has risen sharply since, while both currencies have depreciated on
the black market. In Juba, motorists queued for hours to try to buy fuel as
filling stations ran dry due to a shortage of dollars after the oil
Sabir Hassan, one of Sudan's top negotiators, said talks on economic issues
were impossible amid the current tensions.
"This is a climate of war," he told Reuters. "The best thing is for the
south to stop this policy, and for the two sides to sit down and try to
negotiate ... and try to live in peace."
"War is imminent between the two countries if that policy continues in the
south," Hassan added. (Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Khalid
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
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Received on Sun Apr 15 2012 - 17:50:36 EDT