* Reuters reporter witnesses air strike in South Sudan
* Sudan denies involvement in bombing
* Sudan's President Bashir rules out return to talks
(Adds U.N. chief, paragraph 4)
By Hereward Holland
OUTSIDE BENTIU, South Sudan, April 23 Sudanese
war planes bombed a market in the capital of South Sudan's
oil-producing Unity State on Monday, residents and officials
said, an attack the southern army called a declaration of war.
Sudan denied carrying out any air raids but its President
Omar Hassan al-Bashir ramped up the political tension by ruling
out a return to negotiations with the South, saying its
government only understood "the language of the gun".
A Reuters journalist saw aircraft dropping two bombs near a
bridge linking two areas of Unity's capital Bentiu, although it
was not possible to verify the planes' affiliation. He saw
market stalls ablaze and the body of one child.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's press office issued a
statement saying he "condemns the aerial bombardment on South
Sudan by Sudanese Armed Forces and calls on the Government of
Sudan to cease all hostilities immediately."
Weeks of border fighting have brought the neighbours closer
to a full-blown war than at any time since South Sudan split
from Sudan as an independent country in July.
The two territories went their separate ways last year
without settling a list of bitter disputes over the position of
their shared border, the ownership of key territories and how
much the landlocked South should pay to transport its oil
The disputes have already halted nearly all the oil
production that underpins both struggling economies.
"Bashir is declaring war on South Sudan. It's something
obvious," southern army (SPLA) spokesman Philip Aguer said after
the Bentiu bombing.
Aguer and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan said two
people were killed in the air strike in Unity state where the
Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC) operates
blocks. China's CNPC leads this consortium, along with
Malaysia's Petronas and India's ONGC Videsh.
"Early reports indicate the bombings started at 8.30 hours
and that Rubkona market has been struck," the U.N. mission said
in a statement, without spelling out who carried out the attack.
"These indiscriminate bombings resulting in the loss of
civilian lives must stop," said Hilde F. Johnson, Special
Representative of the Secretary-General for South Sudan.
The mission said its officers had seen one bomb land on the
market and three near a bridge. "A young boy burned to death as
the hut he was in caught fire from the blast in Rubkona market
area," it quoted one of its officers as saying.
Bentiu is about 80 km (50 miles) from the contested and
poorly marked border with Sudan.
Sudan denied carrying out any air attacks in the area. "We
have no relation to what happened in Unity state, and we
absolutely did not bomb anywhere in South Sudan," the country's
military spokesman, Al-Sawarmi Khalid, said.
"LANGUAGE OF THE GUN"
In the worst fighting since the split, South Sudan earlier
this month seized the disputed oil-producing territory of Heglig
- then announced it had started withdrawing on Friday, following
sharp criticism from the U.N. Secretary-General.
Bashir, dressed in military uniform, visited the Heglig
region on Monday, descending from his plane to shouts of "Allahu
akbar" - "God is greatest" - from soldiers and officials
gathered on the tarmac.
Speaking to Sudanese army troops, he vowed not to negotiate
with South Sudan after it had occupied the region.
"We will not negotiate with the South's government, because
they don't understand anything but the language of the gun and
ammunition," he said at a barracks near the oilfield along the
A Reuters journalist on an official tour of the region
filmed bombed-out pipelines dripping oil in the widely damaged
Heglig oilfield, as well as heavy damage to the central
processing facility, power station and other infrastructure.
Abdelazeem Hassan Abdallah, an oil worker in Heglig, accused
South Sudan's forces of attacking the oilfield.
"They know how to do the job completely. They destroyed our
main power plant, and they destroyed our processing facilities,"
he told Reuters.
General Kamal Abdul Maarouf, a Sudanese army commander who
led the Heglig battles, said his troops had killed 1,200 South
Sudanese soldiers in fighting in the area, an account South
Journalists on the official trip said they saw bodies strewn
on the road to the barracks. Some clearly had South Sudanese
flags on their uniforms, but it was not always possible to
verify their nationalities.
Aguer dismissed Maarouf's report. "The number of casualties
the SPLA has suffered since the 26th or March doesn't exceed
50," he said.
South Sudan won its independence in a referendum that was
promised in a 2005 peace accord that ended decades of civil war
between Khartoum and the south.
South Sudan's armed forces have 10 helicopters but no
fixed-wing aircraft, except for one Beech 1900 light transport
aircraft, according to an International Institute for Strategic
Sudan has 61 combat capable aircraft, including 23 fighter
The Satellite Sentinel Project, founded by Sudan activists,
said recent satellite imagery showed Khartoum had "dramatically
increased the number of military strike aircraft at two airbases
and that many are in range to fly deep into South Sudan."
The monitoring group said satellite imagery was consistent
with reports that Sudanese forces bombed "an apparent civilian
area" near a bridge in Bentiu. It also said it appeared the SPLA
had looted a Sudanese military base in Heglig, which could be a
violation of international law.
(Additional reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz and Alexander
Dziadosz in Khartoum, El-Tayeb Siddig in Heglig, Yara Bayoumy in
Juba; Writing by Ulf Laessing, Alexander Dziadosz and Yara
Bayoumy; Editing by Andrew Heavens and David Brunnstrom)