The African Union has called on Sudan to stop its aerial bombardment of South Sudan and for both countries to cease hostilities, as an uneasy calm settled over the disputed border region.
Despite a lull in violence on Wednesday, the continental bloc said Sudan and South Sudan must withdraw their forces from Heglig and keep their troops within their borders.
The demand, made by the AU Peace and Security Council in a statement released after a council meeting late on Tuesday, came as South Sudan freed and handed 14 Sudanese prisoners of war to the International Committee of the Red Cross on Wednesday.
The AU also said the two neighbouring countries should stop issuing inflammatory statements and propaganda that could escalate the conflict.
Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s president, had said earlier on Tuesday that Sudan had “declared war” on his country after the north’s repeated bombing of the south.
The comments were made during a visit to China, which Kiir ended prematurely on Wednesday due to the rising threat of war at home.
China’s top legislator, Wu Bangguo, said during talks on Wednesday with Kiir that it was unfortunate the president was forced to shorten his stay and cancel a planned trip to Shanghai due to “domestic issues”.
Kiir’s comment signalled a rise in rhetoric between the two sides, which spent decades at war with each other, though neither country has officially declared war.
Sudan and South Sudan have been drawing closer to a full-scale war in recent weeks over the unresolved issues of oil revenues and their disputed border.
Sudanese warplanes bombed a South Sudanese market and an oil field on Monday, killing at least two people, and dropped eight more bombs on Tuesday.
The assault took place after Sudanese ground forces had reportedly crossed into South Sudan with tanks and artillery.
China has called for an end to weeks of border fighting that saw the South seize Sudan’s most important oilfield in the Heglig area on April 10 for 10 days.
Beijing has been a key ally and the largest economic partner of diplomatically isolated Sudan. But it is keen not to alienate the South, the world’s newest nation and a source of oil.
China also announced that it will send its envoy for Africa to Sudan and South Sudan to urge talks as it works with the United States to bring an end to border fighting.
“Our special envoy to Africa will soon visit the two countries to continue urging talks,” foreign minister spokesman Liu Weimin told a regular news briefing on Wednesday.
After heavy fighting that broke out last month, both Sudan and South Sudan are reportedly reinforcing troop numbers and digging trenches along their contested border.
Taban Deng, the governor of Unity State, said that at present “with the exception of aerial bombardment, the front line is quiet”.
Yet Mac Paul, the South’s deputy director of military intelligence, said he had “information from our sources the Sudanese army is mobilising for a push on Bentiu”.
His claims could not be verified from independent sources.
Bentiu lies at least 60km from the frontline with Sudan’s army, and large numbers of Southern troops and tanks have moved into the border zone to bolster defences.
Omar al-Bashir, president of Sudan, has promised to press ahead with a military campaign until all southern troops or affiliated forces leave territories in Sudan.
Bashir, who visited Heglig on Monday, said the time for talks with Kiir’s government was over.
“No negotiation with those people. Our talks with them were with guns and bullets,” Bashir told soldiers in the town, which the South occupied for 10 days.
Amid the escalating tension between the the two neighbours, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, condemned air raids by Sudan, and called on the countries’ leaders to return to dialogue.
Talks between the two countries over the unresolved disputes that were being mediated by an AU panel led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, broke down in Ethiopia earlier this month.
AU commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said that if the two parties failed to resolve their disputes within three months, the panel would be disbanded and outstanding issues would then be settled by an unspecified arbitration process.
The violence in Heglig is the worst since South Sudan won independence in July last year after a 1983 to 2005 civil war in which an estimated two million people died.