* Clashes take neighbours closest to war since split
* Khartoum calls it assault on sovereignty; Juba claims
* EU chides both for supporting armed groups over border
(Adds Kiir comments)
By Ulf Laessing and Alexander Dziadosz
JUBA/TALODI, Sudan, April 12 Sudan's government
vowed on Thursday to deal swiftly with South Sudan's occupation
of an economically vital oil field near the border but the south
said it would not pull out until the threat of attacks by the
northern army had gone.
The stand-off follows clashes along the ill-defined border
that have brought the former civil war foes closer to returning
to full-blown conflict than at any time since South Sudan
declared independence last year.
South Sudan seized the Heglig oil field on Tuesday, drawing
international condemnation including rare criticism from the
United States. Sudan has called the move a "blatant assault" on
its sovereignty and demanded an immediate withdrawal.
Heglig, which the south claims as its own, is vital to the
north's economy because the field there accounts for about half
of the country's remaining 115,000 barrel-a-day oil output.
Ahmed Haroun, governor of Sudan's South Kordofan border
state, said crude production had stopped in Heglig, but the army
was "dealing with the situation".
"We hope we can finish that operation in hours ," he told
reporters in the town of Talodi in South Kordofan, a state on
the border with South Sudan where Khartoum is also battling
insurgents who it alleges are aligned with Juba.
With the European Union voicing "deep concern" at the
escalating conflict, the north said it was mobilising its army
to retake the Heglig field, which the South said it had seized
to end attacks from Khartoum.
South Sudan's President Salva Kiir said the conflict could
lead to war.
"I urge you to sensitise our people to the probability of a
full-scale military aggression by the Republic of Sudan against
the Republic of South Sudan," he told parliament, according to a
transcript of the speech.
"The intention of Khartoum is to take over the Unity oil
fields," he said, adding Heglig was southern territory.
Kiir said he was still ready to meet Sudan's President Omar
al-Bashir in Juba or elsewhere after Sudan called off a summit
that had been scheduled for April 3.
South Sudan's Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin
also quoted Kiir as saying South Sudan's army (SPLA) would not
withdraw without guarantees from the international community.
"There must be a mechanism so they (Khartoum) don't launch
another attack," Benjamin told Reuters.
He said that Sudan's air force had dropped six bombs near
the oil town of Bentiu in Unity State south of the border on
Thursday, killing one soldier. Sudan denied the charge.
The violence has dampened hopes that Khartoum and Juba would
soon reach a deal over oil payments and other disputed issues.
Sudan pulled out of the negotiations on Wednesday after South
Sudan seized Heglig.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged both governments to
put an end to the fighting and resume talks.
"In this moment of inflamed tensions, it is imperative that
both sides exercise the maximum restraint, in the interests of
their peoples and their common future," he said in Geneva.
But there were few signs of an immediate halt to the
violence. Clashes also broke out in Blue Nile, another of
Sudan's border states, according to rebels operating there.
The insurgents - members of the southern army during Sudan's
civil war who say they have since severed links with Juba -
claimed they had killed 13 government troops and destroyed
military vehicles in a six-hour battle near the state capital.
Sudan's armed forces spokesman, Al-Sawarmi Khalid Saad,
dismissed the battle as a "small clash" between two patrols and
said one Sudanese soldier had died while 11 rebels were killed.
Neither claim was possible to verify independently.
Officials in the north have accused South Sudan of "using
mercenary forces and rebel groups" in its attack on Heglig and
decried what they said was a plot, sponsored by Juba's foreign
allies, to overthrow the government in Khartoum.
The South seceded from Khartoum's rule last year, but the
two sides have not agreed on issues including division of
national debt, the status of citizens in each other's territory
and the exact position of the border.
Landlocked South Sudan shut down its roughly 350,000
barrel-per-day output in January in a dispute over how much it
should pay to export crude via pipelines and facilities in
Sudan's Bashir said foreign forces were fomenting conflict.
"War is not in the interests of either people and they have
chosen the path of war in the implementation of foreign
agendas," Bashir told reporters in Khartoum.
Motorists fearing disruption of fuel supplies formed lines
at petrol stations on Wednesday to stock up after news of the
Heglig attack reached Khartoum. The government said there was no
threat to supplies.
"The national economy is stronger than the aggressors think
and Sudan has enough stockpiles of basic goods," Sudan Council
of Ministers spokesman Omer Mohamed Saleh said in comments
relayed by online newspaper the Sudan Tribune.
South Kordofan governor Haroun said all Sudan's other fields
were secure. "They are working as usual," he said, adding that
more details about Heglig's situation would become clear after
fighting had stopped and technicians entered the area.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said South Sudan's
move on Heglig was "completely unacceptable" and chided the
north for aerial bombardment of southern territory.
"Both parties must also stop supporting armed groups in the
territory of the other state," Ashton said in a statement.
(Reporting by Ulf Laessing in Juba, Khalid Abdelaziz in
Khartoum, Alexander Dziadosz in Talodi, Stephanie Nebehay and
Tom Miles in Geneva and Tamim Elyan in Cairo; Writing by Tom
Pfeiffer; Editing by Myra MacDonald)