KHARTOUM, Sudan — Sudan on Tuesday backed away from its assertion that it had held discussions with South Sudan about creating a joint force to safeguard oil fields in the South, an economic lifeblood for both countries that is being threatened by the fighting in South Sudan.
“It is not true that during the visit of the president and his delegation to Juba, discussions were held on creating a joint force to protect oil fields in South Sudan,” Sudan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, referring to a visit to South Sudan’s capital by Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, and other top government officials the day before.
On Monday, Sudan’s foreign minister, Ali Ahmed Karti, told reporters upon his return from Juba, “Sudan and South Sudan are in consultations about the deployment of a mixed force to protect the oil fields in the South.”
The foreign minister’s announcement was a surprise given the decades of war and animosity between the people of what is now South Sudan and the Sudanese government in Khartoum. It seemed to reflect the degree to which both nations rely on oil from the South to keep their economies afloat.
But the suggestion of sending Sudanese troops to help South Sudan while it is descending into civil war provoked criticism.
“It showed that Sudan is on one side against the other,” said Sudanese columnist Faisal Mohammad Salih. “It is in Sudan’s strategic interest to see a settlement in South Sudan and build trust with all sides, especially if you don’t know what the outcome of the talks will be.”
The ministry’s statement Tuesday reiterated another one of the announcements made the day before: that 900 Sudanese technicians were being sent to South Sudan to help run the oil fields, at the request of the South Sudanese government and under its administration.
Conflict broke out in South Sudan last month when its president, Salva Kiir, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, of plotting a coup against him, an allegation that Machar has denied. Machar has since fled into the bush and is leading a rebellion against Kiir.
The conflict has killed well in excess of 1,000 people, has displaced around 200,000 and has disrupted oil production in South Sudan, as many foreign oil company workers have been evacuated. South Sudan’s oil runs northward through Sudan to be exported, for a fee.
The opposing sides in the South Sudanese conflict are in talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Before Karti’s statement, Sudan’s official position on the fighting in South Sudan had been to support regional efforts to bring both sides to the negotiating table.