Addis Ababa Despatches International

South Sudan’s perilous oil fields

It was on the evening of March 19 when, in the Gumry oil field in South Sudan’s northern Upper Nile region, opposition forces abducted Ayaaz Hussein Jamali while he was on a routine job. They opened fire and killed the 26-year-old Pakistani engineer’s driver, operator and guard. He pleaded with the rebels not to kill them. But they told him, “It’s part of war,” before bundling him into a vehicle and driving away into the jungle.

By 9.30 p.m., Mr. Jamali was in the rebel headquarters in Pagak, where he joined two Indian workers. He said the Indians had been surrounded by 10 armed rebels and abducted two weeks earlier from the nearby Adar field. Mr. Jamali was working for Dar Petroleum, whose biggest stakeholders are China National Petroleum and Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional. He said Dar hires Indians, Pakistanis, South Africans, Egyptians, Malaysians and Chinese as technical staff. The Indians were abducted because “people there thought they were Chinese extracting oil.”

The ambassadors of India and Pakistan sent text messages late evening on March 30 that the three were released. They had been flown to Addis Ababa and then to Khartoum. Details were not immediately available. A week later, during a state visit to Ethiopia’s presidential palace in Addis Ababa, decorated with stuffed ornamental lions and cheetahs, Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour told this reporter that the release of the hostages was a result of “close coordination” between Ethiopia and Sudan’s security services. The South Sudan rebels have been embroiled in a three-year civil war since President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar of attempting a coup. Mr. Machar, who has been in exile in Johannesburg since late last year, is the chairman and commander-in-chief of the rebel group, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition. They maintain close ties with Khartoum.

The Indians, Ambrose Edward and Midhun Ganesh, were working for China Petroleum and SUDD Services and Investment. Mr. Jamali said from Khartoum that Pakistan’s ambassador told him China Petroleum’s “top managers” were also involved in negotiations. In captivity, Mr. Jamali was “amazed”. The rebels were “very friendly. They were educated. They treated me like a guest,” he said.

No direct talks

Dak Duop Bichok, a rebel leader and a Former Petroleum minister, said if foreigners were still working in the fields, “we’ll capture them”. “It’s our motto to capture anyone who’s still working there. When we shut down the oil fields, and Salva Kiir’s government runs out of money to buy arms and ammunition, then we’ll tell you we’ve achieved our goals.” During a visit to Addis Ababa from his base in Khartoum, Mr. Bichok said the rebel group didn’t have direct negotiations with the Chinese and wasn’t informed about any coordination between Sudan and Ethiopia.

On March 28, Mr. Machar, the commander-in-chief, signed an order for the rebels to contact the embassies of India and Pakistan in Khartoum and release the captives. It took two days for the rebels to agree to Mr. Machar’s order. Mr. Jamali is now home in Sindh in time for his wedding next week. He said the rebels told him they have a problem with China and Malaysia as they are “direct beneficiaries of the oil produced” from South Sudan and that they would “just kill on site” the workers in future, regardless of their nationality. Mabior Garang Mabior, son of the late Sudanese liberation leader John Garang, said the oil fields are part of the “war zone.” Foreign oil workers shouldn’t be put in “harm’s way”.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 2:29:33 AM |

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