KHARTOUM: Top Sudanese security officials headed to crisis talks in the Ethiopian capital yesterday after a delay threw negotiations into uncertainty following fresh fighting allegedly backed by South Sudan, the foreign ministry said.
“Now the ministerial delegation is leaving for Addis Ababa, after the AU informed us that the South Sudanese delegation arrived yesterday,” Al-Obeid Meruh, Sudan’s foreign ministry spokesman said.
In the Ethiopian capital Abdelsamie Dafalla Alhussien, counsellor at Sudan’s embassy, said: “I will confirm to you we are here at the airport. The delegation already flew from Khartoum.”
Earlier, Meruh said combat on Friday over the strategic town of Talodi, and allegations of a troop buildup south of Heglig, had delayed the Sudanese ministers’ trip and raised doubts as to whether the African Union-led talks could proceed.
Sudan’s delegation is headed by the interior minister and includes the intelligence chief, deputy armed forces commander and other senior officials.
The talks were called after international alarm and fears of a wider war following fighting between troops from the north and South last Monday and Tuesday around the Heglig oil region on the disputed border.
Sources close to the talks confirmed technical-level meetings had been going on since Wednesday.
“We are ready and prepared to discuss the (issues) if our counterparts can just come to Addis,” South Sudan’s Foreign Minister Nhial Deng Nhial said in the Ethiopian capital. Along with Nhial, Juba’s ministers of defence, justice and parliamentary affairs were already at the meeting venue, as was their chief negotiator Pagan Amum.
The mediator, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, had also arrived.
Late Friday Sudan’s army accused South Sudan of backing with cannons and tanks a rebel attack on Talodi in South Kordofan state about 100km northeast of Heglig.
The army said it repulsed the attack but the rebels were building up forces elsewhere because their leaders “and South Sudan want to continue their attack on Talodi.”
Insurgents from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), who denied receiving Southern support, said a battle for the town raged into the night and on Saturday.
“The fighting is still continuing,” said Arnu Ngutulu Lodi, the rebels’ spokesman. He had no further details.
The Sudanese army also alleged South Sudan and rebels of the Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement were building up forces south of Heglig in preparation for another attack.
JEM rebels denied any involvement in the previous Heglig fighting.
Border clashes occurred in the Heglig region between troops of the north and South on Monday and Tuesday in the most serious violence between them since South Sudan’s independence last July.
The AU, UN Security Council and European Union all called for an end to the fighting.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blamed Khartoum for most of the violence, citing its aerial bombing as “evidence of disproportionate force.”
The fighting led Sudan to call off a planned April 3 summit between presidents of the two nations.
“No matter what happens in the field on the ground it should not affect the parties’ commitment to negotiate because ultimately, regardless of what happens in terms of fighting and the combat situation, it is only through dialogue, negotiations, that problems will ultimately be solved,” Nhial said.
South African President Jacob Zuma on Friday urged Sudan and South Sudan to ease fears of an all-out war and resume their scheduled leaders’ meeting.