South Sudan: RNW correspondent under fire
South Sudan | RNW | April 2012 | link
Just when an RNW correspondent visited South Sudanese troops at their positions in Panakuac, Sudanese helicopter gunships attacked.
The men are in a jolly mood. James Gatduel Gatluak, commander of South Sudan’s fourth division, prepares himself to give an interview to four foreign journalists when dozens of troops suddenly run to take positions. "Mig!" they shout, referring to the military airplane used by the Sudanese Armed Forces. Men run for their weapons. We scramble together in a trench in the ground, as hell breaks loose.
We don’t see the helicopter gunships, but from its position just above the tree, it starts firing indiscriminately in our direction. SPLA soldiers run to large machine-guns mounted on pick-up trucks. They return fire. Then mortar fire starts in both directions, though in the chaos it proves hard to distinguish between incoming and outgoing fire. Shots and explosions sound from every direction as the Sudanese army and the SPLA are only three kilometers apart. After ten minutes we use a lull in fighting to run to our car and speed off, as an incoming mortar explodes just 50 meters from the roadside.
“No problem,” General Gatduel shouts at us as with a friendly smile, as we speed off to safety and he stays behind to fight a battle. The commander is used to this kind of fighting. Although neither the Southern nor the Northern army has conquered more terrain for over a week now, sudden shoot-outs like this continue to happen.
“Yesterday over 12 bombs were dropped on our positions,” the commander says. The Southern military says the current frontline is 15 kilomteres inside the official territory of South Sudan, although pretty much every inch of the border here is heavily contested between the two sides. It was the ten-day Southern occupation of the Heglig oil field – claimed by both but controlled by the north – that triggered the current crisis.
As we drive roughly one hour to get back to the town of Bentiu, a truck full of soldiers moves towards the frontline. It is followed by more fighting equipment, as well as a half open vehicle with an Arab text written on the front. The text seems to suggest the car –and possibly its inhabitants- come from Sudan’s Eastern region Darfur. There are indications that rebels from Darfurs’ Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) have linked up with the South Sudanese forces, though the SPLA denies this.
“This is not their first provocation, there was also the bombing yesterday,” South Sudanese Major-General Obuto Mamur Mete says upon arrival in Bentiu town. “We have not declared war on them, but they keep bombing and shelling us. They are trying to drag is unto war. Time may come that we go out of our nerves. Then heaven and earth will come down.”
It is up to the politicians of both countries, who are not officially talking but are both under heavy international pressure, to negotiate a way out of the current explosive situation. The thousands of troops and heavy fighting equipment at the border show that a large armed conflict could erupt here any moment.
See also: video on CNN