Heglig (map) is a town near oilfields of the same name. It lies within Sudan, in the state of Southern Kordofan, near the border with South Sudan, though some dispute (north) Sudan’s claim to the area and say instead that the area belongs to South Sudan. In recent weeks, the armies of Sudan and South Sudan have clashed while the two countries’ leaders conduct tense and so far largely fruitless negotiations regarding oil revenue sharing, border demarcation, and other issues left unsettled after South Sudan gained its independence last July. Some of the fighting has centered on Heglig, whose importance lies largely in the fact that it is one of the few major fields left inside Sudanese territory – some 75% of Sudanese oil production capacity was, and is, in the South. Heglig “is key to the Sudanese economy because it contributes almost half of the country’s output of 115,000 bpd.”
Heglig was a site of fighting during earlier Sudan-South Sudan conflicts, including during post-independence skirmishes over the past nine months. The current round of fighting began around March 26, with Sudan saying on the 27th that “it had expelled southern army units from the area around the Heglig field.” Then, some ten days ago, Sudan claimed to have defeated another South Sudanese push into Heglig. Yesterday, after renewed fighting, Sudan acknowledged that Southern forces had taken Heglig. What James Copnall of the BBC says is worth quoting at length:
The fact that Sudan’s biggest oilfield is now apparently in the hands of the South Sudanese army is astonishing.
It is legitimate to wonder why Sudan’s military – which has the advantage of air power and greater weaponry – wasn’t able to stop the South Sudanese advance.
Perhaps the Sudan Armed Forces are simply over-stretched: as well as the South Sudanese army, they are fighting rebel groups in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. Khartoum alleges the rebels are supported by South Sudan.
Sudan will certainly respond…However it is possible the South Sudanese will slip away from the oilfields, with their point proven.
These clashes almost certainly represent an attempt to win ground before negotiations resume.
The government in Khartoum is promising a response, and apparently fighting continues in the area. Meanwhile, South Sudan says it successfully defended the border town of Teshwin against Sudanese attacks earlier this week. The South Sudanese are hitting Sudan where it hurts, and are probably causing a lot of consternation in Khartoum.
Stepping back, I think we have to call this a form of warfare. So far it does not seem to be the “return to full-blown (civil) war” that many, including myself, have feared since before Southern independence. The violence, most analysts stress, forms part of the negotiations process – politics by other means, as it were. For the present, the challenge for observers is making sense of all the interlocking conflicts in the two countries, especially Sudan: internal rebellions, rebellions backed by outsiders, and direct clashes between national armies. The governments, meanwhile, are playing a dangerous game. This is some of the worst fighting since independence, and violence, even as a negotiating tactic, can take on a momentum of its own. Finally, civilians find themselves caught in the middle of a deadly political struggle, often with nowhere to flee.