Air strikes revive fears of war in South Sudan

BENTIU, South Sudan, April 25 Wed Apr 25, 2012 8:02am EDT

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BENTIU, South Sudan, April 25 (Reuters) - Gatkuoth Duop had bought new shoes, drunk a cup of sweet tea and was preparing to go home when an MiG-29 fighter jet dropped a bomb on Rubkona market just across the river from Bentiu in South Sudan.

The 12-year old boy was killed instantly, his scorched body contorted in frozen terror.

"I miss him very much because I lost my friend who normally plays with me and goes to school with me. We played football together," said Duop's friend, Jida Simon, who saw him die during the bombing on Monday.

Nestled in a savannah that has one of the largest oil deposits in South Sudan, Bentiu town was a flash point for trouble throughout decades of civil war between mainly Muslim north and the south, where most follow Christian and animist beliefs.

The civil war ended with a peace agreement in 2005 but people in Unity border state worry that repeated border clashes in the past three weeks will erupt into all-out war, nine months after South Sudan became independent.

A few weeks ago Sudanese warplanes began bombing Bentiu, about 80 km (50 miles) from a contested border, residents say, as a dispute between the former civil war foes over oil revenues and border demarcation finally bubbled over.

On Monday, Sudanese fighter jets dropped three bombs, according to residents and military officials, killing at least two people, including Duop.

The air strike in Bentiu, a dusty town with just one paved road and mainly traditional Tukul houses, destroyed three market stalls selling sugar, soap and other household goods to cinders.

"Everywhere people were crying and screaming. Everybody was saying: 'Whose child was that?' and they were worrying. Then they found out his name," said Nyanhial Bol, who runs a tea shop across the road from where Duop died.

Bentiu residents fear their town may be the next target in a conflict that has already damaged the contested Heglig oil field which once produced nearly half of Sudan's oil production.

The feud has halted most oil production, strangling their oil-dependent economies. "The bombing brought back memories and made me worry that we might go back to war," Bol said.

NO PANIC

Sudan and South Sudan have been locked in a dispute over oil exports since July. The row pushed Juba to halt production of 350,000 barrels per day in protest after Sudan began taking some oil from the South for what it calls unpaid export fees.

The latest skirmishes are concentrated in the oil-rich regions which straddle the contested border.

South Sudan's army, the SPLA, seized the Heglig oil field earlier this month, but finding itself internationally isolated over the move, Juba withdrew from Heglig last week.

Days later Sudan's air force dropped bombs on the Unity state, prompting indignation from South Sudanese who feel the international community has let them down.

"In all of Unity state the people are not happy with the decision that was taken ... (to withdraw) the troops from the border but if it gives space for the peace and the international community acts on time there will be no problem," said Joseph Gatkuoth, a businessman at a tea stand.

"The problem will be the delay."

Sudan has denied carrying out the air strikes and accused Juba of starting the fighting and troop build-up at border.

Much of the tension has been fuelled by bellicose rhetoric by Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and his southern counterpart Salva Kiir.

The SPLA's deputy director for military intelligence, Mac Paul, says Khartoum is deploying more troops near the border with the intention of taking Bentiu, an opinion echoed by many residents.

"My feelings are they drove the SPLA south and I fear they will make it further south all way to Bentiu," said Mussa Gatsiam, a bus conductor at Bentiu bus station.

He said, though, there was no sense of panic in Bentiu as only few had left the town since the start of the border clashes. Many shops were open on Wednesday.

"People live and work here. They don't find jobs in Juba," Gatsiam said. "They adjusted to bombardments before the CPA (2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement)."

No bombing was reported on Wednesday for the first time since Friday but many people were still on edge.

"I do not want war to come back," Nyachar Teny, an old woman standing in front of a freezer surrounded by charred plastic bottled and cans of fizzy drinks. "It seemed like everyone was finished with war." (Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Ulf Laessing Editing by Maria Golovnina,)

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