Sudan And Republic Of South Sudan Debate Borders

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Bombs fell on towns in the Republic of South Sudan this week, less than a year after the country declared its independence from Sudan. At issue is a disputed border than runs through some of the region's richest oil fields. Robert Siegel talks with Jonathan Temin, director of the Sudan program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, about the history of the conflict.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel and, in this part of the program, we're going to hear about new violence in a decades-old conflict.

This week, Sudanese government planes have been bombing towns in the new republic of South Sudan after South Sudanese troops captured a contested oil hub. The fighting comes less than a year after the south declared its independence and peacefully broke with the government in Khartoum. The problem is independence requires a border and what now passes for a border runs right through some of Sudan's richest oil fields.

I'm joined by Jonathan Temin. He's the director of the Sudan program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Welcome to the program once again.

JONATHAN TEMIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And, first, this latest fighting along the border, tell us, how did this begin?

TEMIN: Well, the border between Sudan and South Sudan has been volatile for some time now, but over the last couple weeks, we've seen a real escalation in hostilities. What triggered it this time is that South Sudan moved into an area called Heglig, which is disputed, but until recently, has been controlled by Sudan. And Heglig is a major oil-producing area for Sudan. South Sudan occupied it for about 10 days and then Sudan says they pushed South Sudan out militarily. South Sudan says that they withdrew voluntarily at the behest of the international community.

SIEGEL: But does South Sudan actually claim that this oil hub, Heglig, should be part of South Sudan? Is that - do they say the border includes that?

TEMIN: They do. They claim that it is part of South Sudan. There are about five or six disputed parts of this very long border that both sides claim and some of them, including Heglig, are oil rich.

SIEGEL: Does the South Sudanese withdrawal from that oil hub suggest that there's some room for a negotiated settlement where the border runs?

TEMIN: We hope that there is, but the prospect for negotiations now doesn't look very good because there's been very strong rhetoric on both sides, particularly from Khartoum. It also looks like some of the oil installations in Heglig have been seriously damaged and they may not come back online for some time.

But, in these negotiations, there has - for a long time - been the premise that they both need a deal on oil because so much of the oil is in South Sudan, but the pipelines and the refineries to get the oil out of the country are in Sudan.

SIEGEL: We're talking about a division that is - to what extent is it along ethnic, racial or religious lines between Sudan and South Sudan?

TEMIN: Generally speaking, Sudan tends to be more Muslim and more Arab in its orientation and South Sudan tends to be more African and more Christian or animist. But there are many exceptions to that. It's not at all that clear-cut and some of the exceptions are the source of a lot of problems, particularly for groups in the southern part of Sudan, who have traditionally aligned themselves with South Sudan.

SIEGEL: Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, said that what the government in Khartoum was saying amounted to a declaration of war against his country and, notably, he said that while visiting China and with Chinese President Hu Jintao. What exactly is the role of China in this dispute?

TEMIN: China is thought to have potentially great influence and leverage, largely because of the oil sector. About five percent of China's oil imports came from Sudan before this recent fighting and the relationship with China is very important to Khartoum and to Juba. So there's a lot of hope that China can flex its muscles diplomatically and try to bring the parties closer to some sort of resolution.

SIEGEL: Part of the problem here is that, wherever the border is, while there's broadly a religious, ethnic, racial divide between Sudan and South Sudan, it's only broadly and there are lots of exceptions across the line. So, wherever the line is, someone's going to feel they're on the wrong side of it.

TEMIN: That's correct. And there's also a very long history of relations across the border, people who go back and forth across the border all the time, people who bring their cows across the border to graze during certain parts of the year. Communities are very much interconnected, so it's hard to turn that into a international border all of a sudden and we're seeing some of the repercussions of that.

SIEGEL: That's Jonathan Temin, director of the Sudan program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

TEMIN: Thank you.

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