- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2012

President Obama on Monday attempted to defuse tensions between Sudan and South Sudan that have ignited international concern that the African neighbors are teetering on the brink of an all-out war.

In a phone conversation with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit, Mr. Obama said the fledgling nation’s military must exercise maximum restraint.

Mr. Obama “expressed concern about the growing tensions between South Sudan and Sudan, especially the violent clashes along their shared border and renewed fighting in Southern Kordofan state,” the White House said.

The president also emphasized the importance of avoiding unilateral actions and asked Mr. Mayardit to ensure that South Sudan’s military is not involved in the fighting along the border or supporting rebels in Southern Kordofan.

Fighting has escalated in the past week between Sudanese and South Sudanese forces in Unity state along the disputed border. Sudan’s armed forces also are fighting southern rebels in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states north of the border.

The conflict in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, which has created 140,000 refugees, also threatens to drag the two nations to war.

Sudan accuses South Sudan of supporting southern rebels in these states in the Nuba Mountains. South Sudan denies the accusations.

Meanwhile, Princeton Lyman, the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, warned that any attack on oil facilities near the border could exacerbate the conflict.

“It’s very important that both sides be extremely careful under the current tensions and fighting at the border, that neither crosses the line of attacking oil installations, because I think that would deepen the conflict very much,” Mr. Lyman said in a conference call with reporters.

A spokesman for South Sudan’s army said Sudanese troops already were targeting oil fields and installations in the oil-rich Heglig region.

“There is no more evidence [of the north’s plans to attack the oil installations] than the fighting itself,” Col. Philip Aguer said in a phone interview.

“We have been abiding by the cease-fire. … It is the government in Khartoum that has declared war.”

An official in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, said his government has no intention of going to war.

“War is not our strategy,” Al-Obeid Murawih, a spokesman for the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, said in a phone interview. “But we will retaliate if there is any force from the outside.

“There is bombardment from both sides - politically and militarily,” he added.

Earlier Monday, Pagan Amum, South Sudan’s top negotiator in the talks with Sudan, accused “enemies of peace” in Khartoum of attacking South Sudan and undermining the negotiations.

Seventy-five Sudanese troops were killed in the fighting Sunday and more than 100 wounded, while two South Sudanese soldiers were killed and 19 wounded, Col. Aguer said.

South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in July following a 2005 peace agreement that ended a two-decade civil war. The two nations have since had a tense relationship.

Meanwhile, in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, the defense ministers of Sudan and South Sudan met face to face for the first time since the start of the recent fighting in a bid to resolve the crisis.

The fighting derailed an April 3 presidential summit between Mr. Mayardit and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in South Sudan’s capital, Juba.

In his phone conversation with Mr. Mayardit, Mr. Obama expressed hope that the two countries’ leaders would soon meet. He also emphasized the importance of an agreement on oil.

South Sudan cut off the flow of oil in January in a dispute with the north over transit fees. Oil is the chief source of income for both countries.

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