SUDAN had released four foreigners who had been detained near the border with South Sudan three weeks ago following weeks of heavy clashes between the two African neighbours, officials said yesterday.
Sudan accused the four – a Briton, a Norwegian, a South African and a South Sudanese – of entering an oil-producing border area illegally to spy for South Sudan. Their release came after a meeting late on Saturday between Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and former SA president Thabo Mbeki, who is trying to bring the two countries back to the negotiating table at the African Union in Addis Ababa.
The four seemed to be in good health when they appeared in civilian clothes at a brief ceremony in a defence ministry reception hall in Khartoum yesterday
“We asked President Bashir to release you,” Mbeki told the four at the ceremony. “All of us will go together.”
Mbeki then left the defence ministry together with the four men, who were driven away in a white van as part of his motorcade. Mbeki was due to fly to Juba later yesterday for talks with southern officials.
South Sudanese officials had denied Sudan’s allegations, saying the men were working with the UN and aid groups clearing mines, and had got lost in the remote territory.
They looked relieved at the ceremony, but none of them spoke about the allegations, nor did they touch soft drinks and water on tables in front of them.
Norwegian John Sorbo only said in a brief statement that authorities had treated them “very well” during their detention in military facilities in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
“I’d just like to use the opportunity to thank (Sudanese officials) for the way they looked after us,” he said.
Speaking alongside them, Sudan’s defence minister, Abdel-Rahim Mohamed Hussein, said Khartoum had decided to release the four after a request had been made by Mbeki, who had been mediating their release.
“We launched an investigation and had great doubts about their intentions because they were arrested in a war zone,” Hussein told reporters. “They were working for one of the two sides,” he said, without naming South Sudan directly. “The president of the republic decided to release them as a gesture of goodwill,” he added.
Their arrest in April came after weeks of fighting along the 1 800km contested border that brought the two countries closer to an all-out war than at any time since South Sudan seceded.
The southern nation, which became independent in July under a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war, seized the disputed Heglig oil area earlier in April, but withdrew under heavy international pressure.
The neighbours are still at loggerheads over a raft of contentious issues, including the exact position of the border, the status of citizens in one another’s territory and how much the landlocked south should pay to export its oil through Sudan