South Sudan military vehicles drive on the road between Bentiu and Heglig… (Adriane Ohanesian, AFP/Getty…)
KHARTOUM, Sudan — Sudan and its southern rival slid toward a ruinous war Thursday, with fighting continuing along their contested border and Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir threatening to teach the world's newest country "a final lesson by force."
A protracted war between Sudan and South Sudan, which separated peacefully in July, would almost certainly have a devastating civilian toll and seriously damage the oil sector on which both economies depend.
But diplomacy has gotten nowhere, and civilians on both sides were urging their governments not to back down. The two sides fought a civil war for more than two decades, which killed an estimated 2 million people. Analysts said that unless they can be pressed to return to the negotiating table now, the chances for them to coexist peacefully may be lost for years or even decades.
South Sudan seized Heglig, Sudan's most important oil-producing area, last week, after which Sudan's parliament declared that the new country was an enemy that must be defeated. Bashir has called South Sudan's military "insects" and vowed to "liberate" its territory.
"These people don't understand, and we will give them a final lesson by force," news reports quoted him as telling a rally Thursday. "We will not give them an inch of our country, and whoever extends his hand over Sudan, we will cut it."
South Sudanese military spokesman Philip Aguer said the South had repelled four attacks in the previous 24 hours. But a spokesman for South Sudan's government, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, said his country was not at war with Sudan. "The republic of South Sudan considers Sudan as a neighbor and friendly nation, not an enemy," he said.
He insisted that Heglig was southern territory, but said his country was committed to peacefully resolving all disputes.
The peace deal signed by the two sides in 2005 ended 22 years of civil war. But South Sudan seceded before the most intractable differences between the two were settled.
The exact border is still in dispute. In the split, South Sudan got about 80% of the country's oil, which accounts for 98% of its revenue. The most serious disagreement, over oil revenue and landlocked South Sudan's oil transit payments, escalated when Sudan seized several cargoes of South Sudanese oil in January, prompting South Sudan to abruptly shut down oil production.
Efforts to mediate a solution through the African Union have failed.
The United Nations Security Council has demanded that South Sudan withdraw from Heglig.U.N. Secretary-GeneralBan Ki-moon called on both sides Thursday to avoid a war "that could claim countless lives, destroy hope and ruin the prospects of peace and stability and prosperity of all Sudanese people."
He called on South Sudan to withdraw from Heglig, calling its occupation illegal. He said Sudan should withdraw from another disputed area, Abyei, and stop a bombing campaign against South Sudan.
The United States, which is generally supportive of South Sudan, has condemned its seizure of Heglig, as well as Sudan's bomb attacks in South Sudan. China, the major investor in Sudan's oil fields, has urged a halt to the fighting and called for both sides to show calm and restraint.
In a development that would further complicate efforts to halt the slide toward war, rebels in Sudan's western Darfur region, who have fought government-sponsored militias for years, were reported to have joined the fight against the Sudanese army. News reports quoted a spokesman as saying they had overrun two army positions near Heglig.
Bashir, the Sudanese president, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges related to the actions of the militias in Darfur.
Peter Lasu Ladu, chairman of the Juba Civic Engagement Center in South Sudan, said war seemed likely. He said it would hurt his country economically and create a flood of refugees, and called for international pressure to prevent it.
Many in the northern capital, Khartoum, and the south's capital, Juba, said war seemed all but certain and urged their governments not to back down.
"We do not want war," said Beyanka Peter, 24, a volunteer collecting food and soap to send to soldiers at the front. "We want stability and peace. We spent more than 20 years of war and instability and destruction. We thought this was a time for us to rest, but if they force it on us we can't stand with our arms folded."
Another volunteer, William Gatkouth, 26, said South Sudan was defending its sovereignty: "We are not going to back off and we are also sending a message to our soldiers that it will be against our future if they pull out of Heglig."
In the north, Sudan's state news agency claimed that 2,300 people had volunteered to fight against South Sudan. Mahmud Ali, 30, an unemployed father of five, said he wanted to join the army.
"Heglig is part of the north and should be recaptured at all costs," he said. "I don't know why the South Sudanese are doing this to us. They wanted to secede and we said OK. But this time we will not forgive."
Ishraqa Ahmed, a tea seller on the streets of Khartoum with six children, said she hoped any war would end quickly. "I am not sure if Heglig is part of the north or south, but I hope they end this war as soon as possible, because many died in previous wars, and war has always been bad."
Special correspondent Ahmed reported from Khartoum, special correspondent Lukan from Juba and Times staff writer Dixon from Johannesburg.