Denel Mechem on Sunday said it was working closely with international and Sudanese authorities to ensure the safe release of two of its employees.
The men, whose capture was first reported on Saturday, were in Sudan participating in a United Nations humanitarian operation, Denel Mechem CEO Ashley Williams said.
“They have full diplomatic immunity because of the work they do for the UN peacekeeping forces,” said Williams.
“We expect them to be released at the earliest possible time and we are working with the United Nations and through the South African diplomatic representatives in both countries to ensure that they are not harmed in any way.”
Williams said he has received confirmation from the UN that the two employees — a South African and South Sudanese — were unharmed, but held in custody in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
Williams said he was in regular contact with the family of the South African man, Thabo Siave, to keep them informed about diplomatic initiatives to ensure their release.
Southern Sudanese officials have contacted the family of the local resident who have been working with Mechem for the past seven years.
The two Mechem employees, together with British and Norwegian UN workers were travelling back to Bentui in a Mechem-designed Casspir, mine-protected vehicle, when they were captured by North Sudanese soldiers.
Williams said the two were part of a UN task team responsible for the lifting of landmines and the destruction of unexploded remnants of the recent civil war between the two countries.
He denied the employees were either military advisers or participated in any offensive operations.
‘Humanitarian landmine clearance
“It’s humanitarian work so the story of them being military advisers and this type of thing is completely and utterly nonsense and not true,” he said.
“We are doing humanitarian landmine clearance on a UN contract and our members have full UN immunity. The abduction took place well within South Sudan territory,” he told AFP, saying the group was travelling south between two UN bases.
“Then they grabbed them and drove back to Heglig with them where they then said they’ve arrested them in this disputed area while they weren’t there at all.”
“We have been removing landmines in southern Sudan since February 2004. Prior to the elections earlier this year we have helped to lift more than 3 300 explosive devices and cleared more than 9 000km of road to ensure the safety of residents in the area.”
A team remained in the area, which the United Nations would bring out with protection over fears of similar action, Williams said.
‘Aggression against Heglig’
Sudanese army spokesperson Sawarmi Khaled Saad on Saturday said the four were captured within Sudan’s borders in the tense Heglig oil area.
“This confirms what we said before, that South Sudan in its aggression against Heglig was supported by foreign experts,” he told reporters after the men were flown to the capital Khartoum.
Saad said they “were collecting war debris for investigation”.
He added that all four had military backgrounds, and were accompanied by military equipment and a military vehicle. He did not elaborate.
In the most serious fighting since the South’s independence, Juba’s troops occupied Sudan’s main oil region of Heglig for 10 days, a move which coincided with Sudanese air strikes against the South.
Sudan declared on April 20 that its troops had forced the Southern soldiers out of Heglig, but the South said it withdrew of its own accord.
State of emergency
The occupation heightened nationalist feelings in Sudan, which on Sunday declared a state of emergency suspending the constitution along its border with the South.
Jan Ledang, country director for the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) mission in South Sudan, identified one of the four captives as its employee John Sorbo.
“It’s impossible that they were in Heglig — they were in Pariang” about a 90-minute drive from Heglig in the South’s Unity state, Ledang said.
They were doing follow-up demining work in the area, he added.
The four were on a demining mission “and one of them was from the UN,” said Josephine Guerrero, a spokesperson for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.
“We’re uncertain of the circumstances,” she added.
Norway’s ambassador to Sudan Jens-Petter Kjemprud told AFP on Sunday that his mission still had not obtained consular access to its citizen.
A British embassy spokesperson said her mission was “urgently investigating the arrest of a British national in Sudan” and had requested consular access.
South Sudan’s charge d’affaires in Khartoum, Kau Nak, told AFP he did not have the name of the detained South Sudanese, whom he assumed to be a driver.
“That person is not an SPLA officer or even a soldier,” he said, referring to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army of the South.
He said the SPLA would not have allowed anybody to enter the Heglig area.
Disputed territories and oil
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in July last year after a peace deal ended one of Africa’s longest civil wars, which killed about two million people between 1983 and 2005.
Tensions have risen over a series of unresolved issues including the border, the future of disputed territories and oil.
One month of clashes along the disputed frontier has raised fears of a wider war.
The South Sudanese army said on Saturday that it had repelled an attack by Sudanese-backed rebels outside Malakal, a border town in the South’s Upper Nile state.
President Omar al-Bashir issued a resolution declaring a state of emergency in border districts of South Kordofan state, White Nile and Sennar states, the official SUNA news agency said.
Trade across the frontier has unofficially been banned since South Sudan’s independence, but the emergency formalises that prohibition.
Bashir’s resolution also “gives the right to the president and anyone with his mandate” to establish special courts, in consultation with the chief justice, SUNA said. — Sapa-AFP