Escalation: Evidence of SAF and SPLA Combat Operations (Report)

Escalation: Evidence of SAF and SPLA Combat Operations

The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) has confirmed through the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s analysis of DigitalGlobe satellite imagery that Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) have deployed a significantly increased number of combat capable air assets within range of South Sudan’s border and territory. SSP has documented evidence consistent with reported aerial bombardment in close proximity to a strategic bridge located in Unity State, South Sudan. SAF spokesman al-Sawarmi Khaled Saad denied Sudan’s involvement in the bombings. "We’re just defending our land, and we have nothing to do with what’s happening in Unity state," he said on 16 April 2012.[1]

In imagery dated 15 April, SSP has identified evidence consistent with alleged looting by Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and SPLA-aligned forces at a SAF military installation in Heglig. In imagery dated 16 April, SSP identified the presence of apparently razed structures in Heglig town. Although the structures were razed between February and April 2012, SSP cannot currently determine the exact time of the razing, the actors involved, or the precise context in which the buildings were destroyed. Both Sudan and South Sudan claim sovereignty over Heglig, which South Sudan refers to as Panthou.


The aircraft identified at El Obeid airbase and Kadugli airstrip may represent a significant portion of reported SAF’s combat capable air assets. According to a recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), SAF’s air force includes 11 Sukhoi Su-25 attack aircraft; SSP has identified 5 Sukhoi Su-25s at El Obeid on 18 April 2012. The IISS reports that SAF holds 15 A-5 Fantan attack aircraft (also known as the Nanchang Q-5); SSP has identified 3 aircraft consistent with this type at El Obeid airbase. Twenty-nine (29) Mi-24 attack helicopters are noted in the IISS report; SSP has identified 8 helicopters consistent with this type at El Obeid and Kadugli, respectively, on 18 April. SSP has also identified 5 aircraft consistent with MiG-29 fighters at El Obeid; the IISS reports 23 MiG-29s in Sudan’s air force.[2]


SSP has also identified two areas of apparent aerial bombardment in close proximity to the Rubkona-Bentiu bridge in Unity State, South Sudan. The bridge connects Bentiu to Rubkona; the SPLA’s 4th Division headquarters is in Rubkona and falls along the road leading to the disputed Sudan-South Sudan border.[3] Deputy Director of South Sudan’s Military Intelligence, Mac Paul, stated that SAF intended to cut a supply route to the SPLA.[4]

Analysis of DigitalGlobe imagery corroborates reports of aerial attacks targeting the bridge on 12 and 14 April. On 12 April, Sudanese war planes reportedly dropped five bombs near the bridge.[5] On 14 April, two Sukhoi fighter jets reportedly dropped bombs within 100 meters of the bridge. The attack killed four civilians, but did not damage the bridge.[6] Imagery captured on 18 April shows evidence of aerial bombardment in proximity to the bridge, including visible scorched earth and damaged structures. Imagery from 4 April, before the reported bombings, contains no visible signs of bombardment and civilian structures appear to be intact. A Sukhoi Su-25 has an operational range of 375 km/ 233 mi; Bentiu is not is not within a Su-25’s range from El Obeid airbase. An Su-25 based at Kadugli airstrip, however, would be within operational range of the Rubkona-Bentiu bridge. Recent imagery collected by SSP identifies aircraft consistent with Su-25s at El Obeid airbase.


Evidence of looting, indicated by scattered debris, is present at a SAF military installation in Heglig. Alan Boswell, reporting from Heglig, stated that the SPLA looted and captured a SAF military base in northern Heglig.[7] The destruction or seizure of enemy property may violate international law governing the conduct of land warfare.[8] Razed structures, also visible in Heglig, may constitute evidence of an act that violates international law governing the protection of civilian property.[9]

Sources & Related Media: 


  1. Ferrie, Jared and Salam El Wardany. "South Sudan Says Sudan Bombs Hit 2 Towns, UN Camp." Bloomberg. 16 Apr 2012. Retrieved from:
  2. The Military Balance 2012. International Institute for Strategic Studies. Routledge: London, 2012. Available online 7 March 2012: 112:1, 411-462.
  3. Onyiego, Michael. "Sudan’s frontline: Dead bodies, circling Antonovs." AP. 17 Apr 2012. Retrieved from:
  4. Kuich, Bonifacio Taban. "South Sudan: SAF Bombing Raids On Unity State Kills Civilians - Juba." Sudan Tribune. 14 Apr 2012. Retrieved from:
  5. "Sudan warplanes launch first attack on South Sudan town." AFP. 12 Apr 2012. Retrieved from:
  6. Onyiego, Michael. "Sudan’s frontline: Dead bodies, circling Antonvs." AP. 17 Apr 2012. Retrieved from:
  7. Boswell, Alan. "The War Between the Sudans: No Longer Any Pretense of Peace." TIME. 18 Apr 2012. Retrieved from:,8599,2112356,00.html?xid=gonewsedit
  8. Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land. The Hague, 18 October 1907. Retrieved from:
  9. Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949. Retrieved from: