March 28, 2012

THE NEW NATION of South Sudan was on the brink of war this week with Sudan, the country it split from just eight months ago. In heavy fighting Monday and Tuesday, Sudan’s planes bombed border areas in South Sudan, while South Sudan’s troops briefly seized an oil-producing area north of the border. Tensions eased a little Wednesday, with both governments saying they wished to avoid an all-out conflict. But the two Sudans are already the site of a budding, and largely neglected, humanitarian catastrophe — one that has produced tens of thousands of refugees, an imminent famine and a boost in the world oil price.

The underlying cause of the trouble is disputes over borders and resources that remained unresolved when South Sudan declared independence last July. South Sudan was left with most of the former country’s oil reserves, but its exports travel through pipelines in Sudan. The two governments have been unable to agree on how to divide the revenue, and South Sudan shut down its oil production last month — costing the global market 135,000 barrels a day and denying one of the world’s most impoverished countries 98 percent of its income.

This week’s fighting erupted just as the two states appeared to be getting closer to resolving some of these disputes. A nonaggression pact was signed last month, and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was scheduled to travel to South Sudan next week for a meeting with President Salva Kiir Mayardit. The two men were to sign another deal on free movement and employment of each other’s citizens, appoint a committee to demarcate the border and discuss how to settle the oil issue. Now Mr. Bashir has suspended the meeting.

That may have been the point of the fighting. Since last summer Mr. Bashir has seized one disputed territory, Abiyeh, by force and responded with characteristic brutality to lingering rebel movements in the border provinces of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Journalists and human rights groups say his forces have indiscriminately bombed and rocketed areas in the Nuba Mountains. More than 100,000 people have been driven into South Sudan, and the United Nations says 400,000 are in need of food aid.

Mr. Bashir, like his defense minister, has already been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court; the scorched-earth approach to the border regions is his standard practice. If he negotiates a settlement with Mr. Kiir’s government, it will be only because outside powers, led by the United States and China, compel him through their economic leverage. The Obama administration, which worked hard to midwife the birth of South Sudan last year, is pushing both sides to return to negotiations. But it also must make clear to Mr. Bashir that his aggression will not go unpunished.