Sudanese oil field attack threatens peace talks

A Darfur rebel group accuses foreign oil companies of sponsoring violence and tries to force them out of Sudan.

After launching a deadly attack on a Sudanese oil field earlier this week, a Darfur rebel group is promising to target oil fields across the country. The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), an Islamist rebel group in Darfur, hopes to drive out foreign oil companies, which the group says are funding government violence in Darfur. The raid and threat of ongoing violence may also damage peace talks scheduled to begin this Saturday in Libya.

JEM says its attack on the Defra oil field in Sudan on Tuesday is "only the beginning" of a campaign to drive foreign oil companies out of the country. The raid left 20 Sudanese soldiers dead and five oil workers were taken captive, reports Reuters.

"This is only the beginning," said Ahmed Tugud, the chief negotiator of the Justice and Equality Movement. "We will carry out attacks across Sudan and our main target will be oil fields." ... Tugud said the Defra attack was meant as a message to China, which JEM accuses of arming the Khartoum government. "All the weapons we took from the soldiers were Chinese. The Sudan government is using the oil money it gets from China to buy weapons to kill our people," Tugud said.

JEM commander Abdelaziz el-Nur Ashr told Agence France-Presse that the captives – two of whom of are foreigners – were "safe and in good condition." But he warned that the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, which operates the Defra oil field, would face further attacks if it did not leave within a week.

"We give them seven days from today (Thursday) to leave, we have the ability to stop their activities in the field," Ashr told AFP. He claimed that at least eight other nearby oil fields have already shut down fearing attacks. ... The JEM commander told AFP: "We want China, India and Malaysia to stop oil business because Khartoum is using the oil money to buy arms and kill the people in Darfur. This is our country and they must go."

The Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, AFP notes, is a consortium of largely foreign oil companies including China's CNPC, India's ONGC, and Malaysia's Petronas. The field is source of more than half of the 500,000 barrels of oil produced per day in Sudan, most of which go to China. In response to the attack, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said that China's oil workers in Sudan were safe, though he called on the Sudanese government to work to ensure that safety continues, writes Xinhua.

Meanwhile, a Sudanese military official told the Associated Press that while an attack on Defra did take place, it was not a rebel victory. "It was insignificant," he said. "From a military point of view, they have done nothing." The AP also reports that the Sudanese media described the foreign captives as a Canadian and an Iraqi, but a JEM commander gave their nationalities as Egyptian and Iraqi. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports that the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs is aware of the rebel group's claims, but could not confirm them.

The Toronto Star reports that the JEM's accusations that foreign oil money is funding the violence appear to be correct.

"Most of [Sudan's oil] income is going to buy arms," said Jemera Rone, a Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch in Washington, and author of a study of oil and human rights in Sudan in 2003. Analyzing oil profits and international arms transfer registries, Rone found the money went to buy small arms and Soviet-era aircraft used to bomb villagers in southern Sudan during a two-decade war between the north and south. "The political powers behind the military who have been ruling the country since 1989 have been running wild," Rone said. "They're using money pumped out of the south, but all the trickle-down is in the north."

The JEM's ultimatum for foreign oil companies to withdraw from Sudan casts a further pall on UN-sponsored peace talks set to start Saturday in Libya. Inter Press Service reports that the talks were already threatened by the withdrawal of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), a former rebel group, from Sudan's coalition government. That in turn led several rebel groups to boycott the peace talks, because they felt they would not have a "proper government" to negotiate with. The Unity wing of the Sudan Liberation Army, one of the largest Sudanese rebel groups, said that following SPLM's withdrawal, "for all practical purposes, that government does not exist."

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