Sudan calls off talks with rebels
KHARTOUM -- The Sudanese government said Tuesday it would no longer negotiate with rebels it accuses South Sudan of backing, and threatened to close the pipeline carrying crude oil shipments from its landlocked neighbor.
The decision is a significant setback for the African Union-led efforts to end a conflict that has displaced tens of thousands of people in the past two years. It comes as Sudan's army recaptured a key town from the rebels in the oil-producing South Kordofan state, after days of heavy clashes that underscore the tense situation between the two countries.
"The message from the president [Omar al Bashir] is that we cannot continue talking to people who are terrorizing citizens," said government spokesman Rabie Abdelaty.
Mr. Bashir also told state news agency SUNA that Sudan would close the crude pipeline carrying oil shipments from the south if South Sudan continues to support the rebels operating in the border states of South Kordofan, Blue Nile as well as Darfur.
South Sudan pumps its crude to port Sudan through two pipelines from its Unity and Upper Nile states. The pipelines are vital to the two nation's economies, which are still struggling to recover from the lost revenue following a 15-month oil production shutdown.
Sudan in late 2011 confiscated South Sudanese crude worth $815 million, ostensibly to recover unpaid transit fees, prompting Juba to close down its entire 350,000 bopd of production.
Barnaba Benjamin, South Sudan's information minister, said his government is ready to negotiate with Khartoum over the standoff, but retaliated that his government "has nothing to do" with rebels in Sudan.
"We are committed to the implementation of the peace agreements and we urge Sudan to follow suit, closing the pipelines will not help at all," Mr. Benjamin said.
Since last year, South Sudan has been holding talks with a number of investors to build an alternative pipeline, in an attempt to wean its oil sector away from Sudanese facilities, but no investment deal has been signed. The proposed pipeline route through Jonglei state is infested with tribal war lords, allegedly backed by Sudan.
The Sudanese military recaptured the town of Abu Kershola in the northeastern part of South Kordofan late Monday from the Sudan Revolutionary Front rebels. SRF is a coalition of rebel groups, led by former allies of South Sudan.
Defense Minister Abdel Hussein said that the push against the rebels would continue "until peace returns to the region."
The two formerly united countries reached a messy separation in July 2011 after fighting a 20-year civil war but they continue to needle each other, with each accusing the other of backing proxy rebels in its territory. Each denies the other's accusations.
The SPLM-N rebel group says it is fighting to topple the Khartoum regime, which it accuses of marginalizing tribes in the two states.
Sudan has previously described the rebel leaders as outlaws and terrorists, refusing negotiations with them. But in March, Khartoum bowed to international pressure and started direct talks with the rebels. They haven't agreed to a cease-fire.
The peace talks were slated to resume next month, before fighting intensified. Arnu Lodi, a spokesman for the SPLM-N rebels, said they withdrew from the town to protect civilians from Sudan's indiscriminate bombings.
Mr. Lodi accused the Sudanese army of adopting a "scorched earth policy"--a military strategy that involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy in the continuing offensive. He said that Khartoum hasn't been interested in the negotiations for a long time.
Aid officials have accused Sudanese forces of targeting civilians in the continuing offensive, a charge denied by the military.
Dow Jones Newswires