By KIRUBEL TADESSE
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia
The African Union called on Sudan to stop its aerial bombardment of South Sudan and for both countries to cease hostilities as an uneasy calm settled over the south Wednesday with a lull in violence.
Sudan and South Sudan must withdraw their forces from the disputed border region and keep their troops within their borders, the AU Peace and Security Council said in a statement released after a council meeting late Tuesday.
The AU also said the two neighboring countries should stop issuing inflammatory statements and propaganda that could escalate the conflict.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir had said Tuesday that Sudan had “declared war” on his country following the north’s repeated bombing of the south. Kiir’s comments, made during a trip to China, signal a rise in rhetoric between the rival nations who spent decades at war with each other. Neither side has officially declared war.
Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir gave a fiery speech last week in which he said there will be no negotiations with the “poisonous insects” who are challenging Sudan’s claim to a disputed territory near the border.
South Sudan won independence from Sudan last year as part of a 2005 peace treaty that ended decades of war that killed 2 million people.
Sudan and South Sudan have been drawing closer to a full-scale war in recent weeks over the unresolved issues of oil revenues and their disputed border. The violence has drawn alarm and condemnation from the international community.
The AU said Sudan and South Sudan must resume negotiations over their disputes, which collapsed earlier this month in Ethiopia when two the countries started attacking each other.
In January, the landlocked South Sudan shut down oil production and accused Sudan of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of oil it shipped through its northern neighbor. Sudan responded by bombing the South’s oil fields.
Earlier this month, South Sudan invaded the oil-rich town of Helgig, which was in the control of Sudan but which both countries claim. South Sudan’s government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin said that troops from the south had withdrawn from the Heglig on Monday, but that Sudan continued with aerial bombardment of the south.
The U.N. Mission in South Sudan confirmed that at least 16 civilians in South Sudan were killed and 34 injured in bombings by Sudanese aircraft in Unity State, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations told reporters in New York Tuesday. She said the mission reported that the bombings also caused significant damage to infrastructure.
In the South Sudan region of Panakuac, which has seen days of air and ground attacks, violence subsided Wednesday and people were out in the streets.
South Sudan government spokesman Benjamin also said there was no reported incidents of violence by Wednesday afternoon in much of the south, though he cautioned he was still receiving reports from various regions.
A Chinese official said Wednesday Kiir had to cut short a five-day visit to China because of the rising threat of war at home. Kiir originally planned to spend five days in China, a key economic and strategic partner for the newly independent country. It remained unclear exactly when he would return to South Sudan.