KAMPALA, Uganda — The ever-intensifying conflict between Sudan and South Sudan is threatening to drag in neighboring countries and undermine regional security and economic interests.
Ugandan Defense Chief Gen. Aronda Nyakairima last week said his country will not hesitate to intervene if fighting escalates, and he urged his counterparts in Kenya and Ethiopia to take a position on the conflict.
All three countries share borders with South Sudan and have strengthened economic ties since the South gained independence in July.
South Sudan is Uganda's largest export market, and Kenya and Ethiopia recently signed a major infrastructure project with South Sudan that will include an oil pipeline running from the South to Kenya's shore. The pipeline will reduce the South's dependence on Sudan for oil shipments. Independence left South Sudan with 75 percent of Sudan's oil fields but still heavily dependent on Sudan for shipment and refining.
The latest fighting, the worst since independence in July, revolves around an oil field in Heglig, along their disputed border. In 2009, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration defined the border and placed Heglig inside Sudan.
Kenya Defense Forces spokesman Col. Cyrus Oguna hinted that war between the two Sudans would have a destabilizing effect on the region through arms trafficking, refugees and economic disruption. He added that Kenya has not ruled out upgrading its current U.N.-backed peace-keeping mandate.
Uganda in 2010 plunged further into debt with the $750 million purchase of six Su-30MK2 Russian fighter jets, a move some military experts say was in anticipation of war with Sudan.
President Yoweri Museveni has been silent on how Uganda will handle any escalation.
Sudan at one time backed the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group originating in northern Uganda that has recruited child soldiers and displaced nearly 2 million people. Uganda in turn backed South Sudanese rebels.
Gen. Nyakairima last week accused Sudan of preparing LRA rebels for combat with South Sudan. The LRA is thought to be down to around 500 soldiers, who operate in the jungles of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir — who is accused by the International Criminal Court of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity — referred to the South last week as an "insect" that needs to be taught a "lesson by force" for having captured Heglig on April 10. Heglig accounts for roughly half of the north's crude oil supply.
Sudan regained control of Heglig Friday, in an assault that Sudan says killed 1,200 South Sudanese troops. The South said it lost 19 soldiers and killed 240 Sudanese troops.
South Sudan withdrew its troops from Heglig on Sunday and agreed to resolve the conflict through international mediators. Sudan accuses the South of destroying most of the oil infrastructure in its wake.
On Monday, Mr. Bashir said he would no longer consider talks with the South. He then unleashed an aerial bombardment of a bridge and market in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State, South Sudan.
From Heglig Monday, he ordered his army to push the Sudanese rebels deep into South Sudan. Bombings extended nearly 40 miles into South Sudanese territory
South Sudan called Monday's offensive an act of war.
"Bashir is declaring war on South Sudan. It's something obvious," said Philip Aguer, a South Sudan army spokesman.
The African Union on Tuesday called on Sudan to stop bombing the South and urged both countries to cease hostilities.
Both Sudans may not have the military capacity to sustain a long war, judging by the speed with which South Sudan seized Heglig and its apparent incapacity to hold it.
Small Arms Survey, a weapons-monitoring group, reports that Sudan and South Sudan are channeling arms to rebels in each other's territory in pursuit of land and oil.
Ugandan Army apokesperson Col. Felix Kulayigye said Uganda has no immediate plan to send troops to Uganda's border or beyond.
"Our position is a peaceful resolution to the conflict," he said.
A 5,000-troop contingent from South Sudan, Uganda, Congo and the Central African Republic was recently deployed to capture LRA leader Joseph Kony. A protracted war between the Sudans could divert attention and resources from that mission.