* Reuters reporter witnesses air strike in South Sudan
* Sudan denies involvement in bombing
* Sudan's President Bashir rules out return to talks (Recasts with Southern
accusation, adds Heglig damage, background)
By Hereward Holland
OUTSIDE BENTIU, South Sudan, April 23 (Reuters) - Sudanese war planes bombed
a market in the capital of South Sudan's oil-producing Unity State on
Monday, residents and officials said, in an attack the southern army called
a declaration of war.
Sudan denied carrying out any air raids but its President Omar Hassan
al-Bashir ramped up the political tension by ruling out a return to
negotiations with the South, saying its government only understood "the
language of the gun".
A Reuters journalist saw aircraft dropping two bombs near a bridge linking
two areas of Unity's capital Bentiu, although it was impossible to verify
the planes' affiliation. He saw market stalls ablaze and the body of one
Weeks of border fighting have brought the neighbours closer to a full-blown
war than at any time since the South split away from Sudan as an independent
country in July.
The two halves of the country went their separate ways last year without
settling a list of bitter disputes over the position of their shared border,
the ownership of key territories and how much the landlocked South should
pay to transport its oil through Sudan.
The disputes have halted nearly all the oil production that underpins both
"Bashir is declaring war on South Sudan. It's something obvious," southern
army (SPLA) spokesman Philip Aguer told Reuters after the Bentiu bombing.
Aguer and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan said two people were
killed in the air strike.
"Early reports indicate the bombings started at 8.30 hours and that Rubkona
market has been struck," the U.N. mission in South Sudan said in a
statement, without spelling out who carried out the attack.
"These indiscriminate bombings resulting in the loss of civilian lives must
stop," said Hilde F. Johnson, Special Representative of the
Secretary-General for South Sudan.
The mission said its officers had seen one bomb land on the market and three
near a bridge. "A young boy burned to death as the hut he was in caught fire
from the blast in Rubkona market area", it quoted one of its officers as
Sudan denied carrying out any air attacks in the area. "We have no relation
to what happened in Unity state, and we absolutely did not bomb anywhere in
South Sudan," the country's military spokesman, Al-Sawarmi Khalid, said.
"LANGUAGE OF THE GUN"
In the worst fighting since the split, South Sudan earlier this month seized
the disputed oil-producing territory of Heglig - then announced it had
started withdrawing on Friday, following sharp criticism from U.N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Bashir, dressed in military uniform, visited the Heglig region on Monday,
descending from his plane to shouts of "Allahu akbar" - "God is greatest" -
from soldiers and officials gathered on the tarmac.
Speaking to Sudanese army troops, he vowed not to negotiate with South Sudan
after it had occupied the region.
"We will not negotiate with the South's government, because they don't
understand anything but the language of the gun and ammunition," he said at
a barracks near the oilfield along the contested border.
A Reuters journalist on an official tour of the region filmed bombed-out
pipelines dripping oil in the largely damaged Heglig oilfield, as well as
heavy damage to the central processing facility, power station and other
Abdelazeem Hassan Abdallah, an oil worker in Heglig, accused South Sudan's
forces of attacking the oilfield.
"They know how to do the job completely. They destroyed our main power
plant, and they destroyed our processing facilities," he told Reuters.
"CAPABLE OF CAPTURING HEGLIG"
General Kamal Abdul Maarouf, a Sudanese army commander who led the battles
in Heglig, said his troops had killed 1,200 South Sudanese soldiers in
fighting in the area, an account South Sudan denied.
Journalists travelling on an official trip to the region said they saw
bodies strewn on the road to the barracks. Some clearly had South Sudanese
flags on their uniforms, but it was not always possible to verify their
Aguer dismissed Maarouf's report. "The number of casualties the SPLA has
suffered since the 26th or March doesn't exceed 50," he said.
South Sudan won its independence in a referendum that was promised in a 2005
peace accord that ended decades of civil war between Khartoum and the south.
South Sudan's armed forces have 10 helicopters but no fixed-wing aircraft,
except for one Beech 1900 light transport aircraft, according to an
International Institute for Strategic Studies report. (Additional reporting
by Khalid Abdelaziz and Alexander Dziadosz in Khartoum; El-Tayeb Siddig in
Heglig; Writing by Ulf Laessing, Alexander Dziadosz and Yara Bayoumy;
Editing by Andrew Heavens)
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
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Received on Mon Apr 23 2012 - 13:37:07 EDT