JUBA, South Sudan—Sudan and South Sudan on Sunday moved more troops to an ill-defined border town, foreshadowing a bloodier conflict between the neighbors over a disputed oil-rich region.
Heglig has become a flash point for renewed hostilities between the two sides, which in July reached a tense divorce that created the world’s youngest republic, South Sudan. The settlement of the civil war failed to resolve historical ambiguities around the border or age-old animosities between the people.
Heglig is home to a vital oil refinery for the south, whose borders hold most of the two nations’ oil reserves and virtually no industrial infrastructure. The facility would help the nascent country process and sell oil without help from its northern neighbor. For the north, which houses most of the refining capability of the two nations, Heglig has what much of the country lacks: oil.
The two sides have engaged in fierce skirmishes over Heglig, but both say they are now moving more firepower to the region.
Sudan military spokesman Al-Sawarmi Khalid told reporters in Khartoum that Sudan Armed Forces were advancing on Heglig. And while they vowed not to occupy the town, Mr. Khalid said they would defeat the south’s “war machine.”
After battles with South Sudan along three fronts on Saturday, Sudanese troops are around four miles from Heglig’s oil field, he said. “The liberation of Heglig is eminent and South Sudan forces are now in disarray” said Mr. Khalid, who declined to reveal details of casualities.
Col. Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army, said one infantry division has controlled Heglig since Saturday. He said the southern army has killed 240 Sudanese soldiers since entering Heglig and lost 19 of its own, mainly as a result of air raids. Those figures couldn’t be independently verified.
“There are four or six planes a day,” the colonel said. “We don’t have an air force, we don’t have planes to do the same, but we have been fighting them without planes or anything for 21 years.”
The colonel was speaking at Juba International Airport, where he had presented a group of 14 prisoners of war captured over the weekend. The men sat in a row on the hot airstrip. They appeared tired, dirty and mostly unharmed.
Lt. Khalid Hasan Ahmed, 30 years old, said he was a medic who was captured by the SPLA after they overran a hospital on Saturday where he was treating at least 50 SAF soldiers. He said the hospital morgue had received 20 dead soldiers when he was taken prisoner at gunpoint.
“We have five divisions of soldiers around Heglig,” or about 1,000 men, Lt. Ahmed said. He said he and his men had been treated well, but was reprimanded by SPLA soldiers when he tried to give his parents’ phone number to a reporter.
South Sudan Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said the SPLA has repulsed northern attacks from Heglig since the beginning of March and that the army would stay until Khartoum agreed to stop staging attacks on its territory.
“They are the aggressors and this is what we have been telling the security council,” Mr. Benjamin said.
Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr, held talks with Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir on Sunday, expressing Egypt’s willingness to mediate the escalating conflict, Sudan’s state media reported Sunday.
The state-run Sudan News agency quoted Mr. Bashir as saying Sudan wouldn’t enter talks with South Sudan until it withdrew its forces from the oil field.
Both Sudan and South Sudan have marshaled historical and political arguments to make their cases why the region belongs to them. Sudan says Heglig belongs to it, according to a division of territory that came after 1956.
The south claims that after oil was found in Heglig in the 1970s, Gaafar Nimeiry, Sudan’s president from 1969 to 1985, named the state where it is located Unity, hoping oil wealth would tie the north and south together. Since that time, the area’s borders have been redrawn repeatedly.
The African Union, the United Nations and others in the international community locate Heglig inside South Kordofan, which is inside Sudan.
Juba officials say Heglig belongs to them, according to their July secession agreement. They say those borders respected a 1956 territorial definition set by departing British colonial administrators.
Unity is one of 10 states in South Sudan and is home to the Nuer and Dinka peoples. Heglig is one of six disputed areas along the Sudans’ common border. Oil production in Unity, believed to be about 150 million barrels annually, has ceased. South Sudan halted the entirety of its oil distribution to Sudan—about 350,000 barrels a day after alleging Khartoum was charging unreasonable fees to refine and transport its crude.
More than 70% of Sudan’s economy depends on oil revenue, while more than 90% of South Sudan’s economy does. The south’s secession has been a severe blow to Khartoum’s oil industry.
After fighting between the two countries intensified in recent weeks, the two countries called off negotiations to deal with a number of matters left unresolved by their July 2011 split. Those unresolved issues include border demarcation and oil-revenue sharing.
in Kampala, Uganda,
contributed to this article.