Wau/Juba — The South Sudanese border state of Western Bahr el Ghazal on Wednesday accused the army of neighbouring Sudan of carrying out air and ground attacks against Raja County, overrunning a military base and killing a significant number of soldiers and civilians, authorities and residents have said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity multiple military sources told Sudan Tribune that at least 32 soldiers, were killed in the attack, while many others were wounded.
"It is a tragedy. A lot of our forces are still missing", a military source who had returned from the scene on Wednesday told Sudan Tribune from Raja County.
The Sudanese army attacked while the SPLA were conducting a parade, he said, adding that the commanding officer had been killed. "So far we were able to count 32 people excluding civilians," said the SPLA source.
The Governor of Western Bahr el Ghazal, Rizik Zachariah Hassan, did not give casualty figures when he spoke to the press in Wau on Wednesday but said it was a "well coordinated attack" by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) on the positions of the South Sudanese army (SPLA) in Kitkit, which is situated 119 kilometers north of Raja town.
"An unjust war is being imposed on us one more time. Everything has already been said about this war of aggression by Sudan. Our love for peace is being exploited and the international community is silent", the visibly upset Governor, who comes from Raja County, told the press on Wednesday.
Governor Hassan said that he was still waiting for a "comprehensive security report" from the SPLA fifth division commander in the area, Major General Chol Thon.
The attacks came two days before the two presidents, Omer Hassan Al-Bashir of Sudan and Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan, are scheduled to meet in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Friday to revive the implementation of the cooperation agreements between the two nations.
In Juba, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit announced the attack but did not provide details, only saying that "the attackers" had been repulsed by the SPLA, adding that Sudanese government will not succeed in its attempts to occupy contested border areas before the scheduled Presidential summit on Friday.
"What does Bashir want to achieve with this provocation at the time we are supposed to meet in Addis Ababa on Friday 4th?", he asked.
Kiir made the remarks while addressing different levels of government officials and senior military officers, including Chief of General Staff, General James Hoth Mai at the presidential palace in Juba.
"It is unfortunate to inform you that Sudanese Armed Forces have attacked SPLA positions in Raja County, Western Bahr el Ghazal today. Their Antonov are still carrying out aerial bombardment as I am talking to you," Kiir said in a televised statement by the state-owned South Sudan Television (SSTV) on Wednesday.
South Sudan's claims come only a day after it was announced the Kiir would meet his Sudanese counterpart in Ethiopia to discuss the remaining issues pertaining to South Sudan's secession from the north in July 2011.
Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, visited both capitals before the New Year to try and revive the peace process and post-partition negotiations on oil, border demarcation, contested areas, citizenship and other issues.
The two sides almost returned to full-scale war in April last year, when the SPLA took control of Heglig/Panthou - a key contested oil area - after accusing SAF of carrying out aerial and ground attacks on Unity State.
With mediation from the African Union High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) and under the threat of sanctions from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the two sides signed a deal in September last year covering numerous issues. The deal did not, however, address the status of contested areas such as Abyei and Kafia Kingi, which is claimed by South Sudan as part of Western Bahr el Ghazal State and Sudan as part of its western Darfur region.
In his New Year's Eve message, President Kiir said he was ordering South Sudan's army to pull back from the tense border as a sign of good will to implement the security elements of the deal reached in Addis Ababa on 27 September, which included the demilitarization of their common border.
Both countries, agreed to withdraw their troops 10 kilometers from either side of the border, and for the buffer zone to be monitored by the United Nations peacekeeping forces (UNISFA) working in Abyei and a joint force from the northern and southern armies.
However, the security arrangements of the deal have not yet been implemented, with Khartoum demanding that South Sudan disarms its former comrades who have been fighting the government in South Kordofan and Blue Nile since 2011, as a precondition for the full implementation of the other aspects of the deal.
Khartoum also demanded that the buffer zone be extended to include South Sudan's border with the Sudanese states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan in order to prevent the Sudanese rebels operating in the two states from crossing into South Sudan or using the young nation as a resupply route.
President Kiir, has previously said Sudan's demands "will not happen", describing them as practically "impossible".
"They want to take the contested areas so that [Bashir] talks with [a] position of strength when we meet. They will not manage. Their ground attacks have been repulsed. [The] SPLA is capable of defending this country", Kiir told members of his government on Wednesday.
On Sunday, South Sudan's information minister, Barnaba Marial said the Sudanese military was "amassing troops" at the border ahead of the Kiir-Bashir meeting. If the Addis Ababa meeting still goes ahead, it will be the first time the two heads of state have met since they signed the September Cooperation Agreement and only the third time in the 18 months since Bashir attended South Sudan's independence declaration in Juba on 9 July 2011.
Brigadier General, Malaak Ayuen Ajook, the head of the SPLA's information and public relations department, also announced the attack in a televised statement, explaining that the SPLA has been closely monitoring the situation and had alerted the public of the movement of Sudanese troops along the border areas.
"The Sudanese government is amassing and moving troops with heavy weapons along the border towards South Sudan. The intention of this movement is the attack of today on the SPLA positions in Kitkit which is an area under Raja County. They carried out ground and air attack. And while the SPLA was engaging them, they carried out an attack in another village, killing and abducting innocent civilians, most of whom are women and children", Malaak said in a statement.
The senior military officer said Wednesday's attack followed a clash with the Sudanese Armed Forces - aided by the paramilitary Popular Defense Forces (PDF) and armed tribesmen on horseback - on Saturday 29 December in the Sirmalaka area of Raja County.
South Sudan has also claimed that, at least five people were killed by SAF air and ground attacks on a contested border area between Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Sudan's western Darfur region on 26 December.
The Sudanese army has denied attacking the Kiir Adem area of Mile 14, but admitted that clashes occurred between the SPLA and Al-Rizigat tribesmen in the disputed region.
Khartoum routinely denies bombing southern territory often blaming tribal clashes or saying that it only attacks rebels moving across the border into Sudan from South Sudan. Juba, also denies hosting or aiding Sudanese rebels and, conversely, accuses Sudan of supporting rebels in its territory.
The inclusion of Mile 14 in the proposed buffer zone three months ago has proven extremely controversial in South Sudan, with Northern Bahr el Ghazal politicians and citizens denying the ownership area is contested.
Despite the recent border clashes and claims that the Sudanese military was moving troops and equipment towards the border, South Sudan was "taken aback" by the news of the attack, according to Emmanuel Lowila, the minister in the office of South Sudan's presidency.
Lowila said that Juba had not expected the attack due to President Bashir's New Year's message that he will not only work to promote relations with his country but that he will provide "necessary support".
"We were surprised by this development. We thought Sudanese president Bashir had given a speech in which he said he actually worked for independence of this country and will work again to promote only better relations with us but he will work hard to provide necessary support. Why all of a sudden the Sudanese Armed Forces under his command staged this deadly attack?", asked minister Lowila.