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Sudan And South Sudan On The Brink Of War


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, how many times lately have you heard somebody plead with the public not to rush to judgment? In my opinion, not often enough. I'll talk about that in my weekly Can I Just Tell You essay and that's coming up later.

But first, we want to take another look at an important story we've been following. The volatile relationship between Sudan and South Sudan. The south gained its independence last July after a 2005 peace agreement ended decades of civil conflict. But since then, the two countries have struggled to keep the peace. They've been fighting over a contested border region and the sharing of oil revenues, among other issues.

Ground fighting and aerial bombings have been ongoing this month and civilians have been paying a heavy price. Now, South Sudan's president Salva Kiir says the recent actions from the north amount to a declaration of war.

We want to know more about this, so we've called upon Hannah McNeish. She is a freelance reporter who has been covering the story for the news service, AFP. She's with us on the line from the town of Bentiu in South Sudan.

Hannah McNeish, thank you for speaking with us.


MARTIN: Can I just ask you, what's the situation on the ground right now? And can you tell us what you know about how many people, civilians in particular, have been injured at this point?

MCNEISH: The hospital has said that there were two people that they received yesterday for injuries, for bombings. There were 11 on Monday and two people have died from a bombing on Monday, where four missiles were dropped near a bridge and also on a market.

MARTIN: How is the current fighting viewed where you are in South Sudan? What do people there understand about why this is going on?

MCNEISH: People in South Sudan are saying that this is their old enemy, Sudan, who again is wanting a war, who won't leave the south alone. There were decades of civil war between the north and the south before South Sudan became independent in July.

Since then, the two sides have been arguing over how much South Sudan should pay to export its newly found and vast oil wells through the north. In late January, South Sudan shut down its oil production. It accounts for 98 percent of the south's revenue and a large chunk of the north's revenue in terms of fees because it said that the north was stealing its oil.

That led to a huge escalation in tension between the two countries and analysts are saying that this is now an economic war, that the two sides are pushing each other and seeing who blinks first.

MARTIN: Now, how is this conflict understood in the north? As I understand it, the government of Sudan, which is in the north, is denying that these bombings are even taking place.

MCNEISH: Well, Sudan has traditionally always denied that these bombings have taken place. South Sudan says who else could this be? I mean, this is their old enemy. South Sudan itself doesn't have any air power and it doesn't have any hostile neighbors that do have air power.

MARTIN: It hasn't even been a year since South Sudan became a country. You would imagine that there's a lot to focus on in terms of just building basic infrastructure and hospitals and so forth and those things that - how much of a setback does this conflict pose for them?

MCNEISH: This is a huge setback. If South Sudan goes fully back to war, the situation won't improve. It's one of the most desperately poor countries in the world, lacking basic infrastructure, lacking roads. There are hundreds of NGOs here who are popping up the health service, education, but they're starting from scratch most of the time. There is a literacy rate of around 16 percent and education is poor. People say that women - girls are more likely to die in child birth than to finish school here.

And so, if South Sudan goes back to a full-scale war, I dread that NGOs would pull out and that they really would be going back to the situation that they had in the civil war.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with AFP freelance reporter Hannah McNeish. She's been covering the tensions between Sudan and South Sudan. There's been a recent escalation in those tensions, which include bombings and civilian casualties.

Americans, Hannah, woke up to the pictures in some major newspapers of the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, reviewing troops in China. What is he seeking from China?

MCNEISH: Well, China was traditionally Sudan's ally during the civil war and when South Sudan split from Sudan, it took 75 percent of the crude oil. Many of the oil installations are owned by China. China is the major buyer. And so South Sudan and China's relationship is just starting. China is now put in the difficult position of trying - not wanting to mediate between the two, but being forced to take some kind of position.

International analysts have said that after nine months or so of African Union-led talks, trying to get these two sides to resolve their issues, it really is China now that has the leverage. So now, South Sudan is really hoping that China could help it in terms of diplomacy and also in terms of economics. It could possibly bail South Sudan out.

There's been talk of South Sudan trying to mortgage its oil, trying to ease the economic troubles that it found itself in since the shutdown of oil in January by turning towards countries such as China. To this (unintelligible) China has not really got involved in this conflict. It did come out earlier this year and urged both sides to show restraint and this was quite a rare move from China.

Since then, it's echoed that call, but it hasn't gone much further and we don't really know what's happening behind closed doors.

MARTIN: Are any other international actors playing a role here? The United Nations, for example. Any of the significant NGOs. The United States, for that matter. Are any other players playing any role in trying to mediate this conflict at this juncture?

MCNEISH: Well, both the African Union and the UN Security Council have come out with quite strong statements recently, urging Sudan to stop its campaign of aerial bombardment and also urging South Sudan's troops not to attack. South Sudan is still saying that the international community is not doing enough, that it is a victim of these bombing campaigns. It has pulled out of a contested area that - it's called Heglig - that Sudan uses to produce half of its oil under pressure from the international community. But since then, the aerial bombardments haven't stopped.

The governor of Unity State, near where this conflict is happening, has said, we can't be at the mercy of the Sudanese air force. The underdog will bite back. And he said, we do not want to get involved in this war, but we can't be seen not to retaliate if Sudanese forces keep pushing into our territory.

MARTIN: Hannah McNeish is a freelance reporter who's been covering Sudan and South Sudan for the AFP, the international news service. Hannah, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCNEISH: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.