A new Satellite Sentinel Project, or SSP, report, “Sudan Armed Forces Buildup in Heglig,” documents an increased Sudan Armed Forces, or SAF, military presence in the Heglig area of South Kordofan, Sudan. The DigitalGlobe satellite imagery in the report shows a total of 22 tanks, two Mi-24 helicopter gunships, and 10 Heavy Equipment Transports, or HETS, in the area as of March 5, 2013. This oil-producing Sudanese border town, which South Sudan claims lies within its territory, has seen much tension along the undefined border, including clashes between SAF and Sudan Peoples Liberation Army-North, or SPLA-N, rebels, documented by SSP in April 2012.
On February 12 of this year, South Sudan accused Sudan of sending more forces to the contested border area, which Khartoum neither confirms nor denies. However, the new satellite image analyzed by DigitalGlobe’s Analysis Center shows increased activity that, when combined with existing artillery and infantry units, totals to two reinforced infantry battalions.
The newly arrived tanks raise the total number of tanks observed in the greater Heglig area to 22, which equates to two tank companies. The 10 HETS that are parked just outside the gate of the tank support area could be used to quickly transport the tanks long distances for defensive or offensive operations. Twelve tanks are already deployed to defensive positions south of town.
The U.S. embassy in Khartoum has stated that they are “deeply concerned” about the recent reports of “Sudanese helicopter crossing into South Sudan and the artillery bombardment by Sudanese armed forces of South Sudanese troops.”
However, as of mid-February, the embassy did say that it had no evidence that a military buildup had been taken on either side. The SSP-analyzed images, taken over the last six months, show a slow buildup of forces in the Heglig area with the most recent increases noted since January 2013.
A buffer zone between South Sudan and Sudan would be essential to resume oil exports that both countries need for economic growth. The South Sudan region of Juba shut down its oil output amounting to 350,000 barrels a day almost a year ago, citing exploitation of pipeline fees where South Sudan accused Sudan of usurping $815 million worth of crude oil.
Washington also has expressed concern regarding the “increase in negative rhetoric” which could lead to increased tension since both nations have not yet set up a demilitarized border zone despite agreements to move forward.