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UN Darfur vote turns scramble for Sudan's oil

As the UN Security Council is debating a US draft resolution on the Sudan crisis, based on colliding views whether a genocide is or is not happening in Darfur, the issue of Sudan's oil is becoming a key factor. If an oil export embargo is approved, China and India would lose their influence over Sudan's vast oil reserves and a Khartoum regime change would open up these resources to the West. The US is in favour of sanctions, China is against.

The population of Darfur is presently, as the UN puts it, suffering from "the world's worst humanitarian crisis." It is well documented that the Khartoum government bares much of the responsibility for this immense suffering, which the UN calls "ethnic cleansing" and the US yesterday called "genocide". It is however also well documented that the US through its closest African allies, helped train the SLA and JEM Darfuri rebels that initiated Khartoum's violent reaction, as afrol News reported on Tuesday.

While the US and UK governments are urging the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Sudan due to Khartoum's "acts of genocide" and to stop the humanitarian crisis, many Asian and African countries are sceptical to the sudden rush to condemn Khartoum. They suspect that the real interests behind the proposed sanctions and opening for the use of military force against Sudan is motivated by other than humanitarian motives to meet the Darfur crisis - a crisis which the West actually helped create.

After all, Sudan is believed to hold Africa's greatest unexploited oil resources, even greater than those of the Gulf of Guinea. US oil companies are barred from operating in Sudan and other Western companies are chased from the country by the Washington administration. The Canadian oil company Talisman Energy is even facing charges of "complicity in genocide and war crimes" in a US court due to its past engagements in Sudan. At present, Asian oil companies dominate the field in Sudan.

For China, Sudan has become an important oil provider and an important country to build a national sector of internationally operating oil companies. The rapidly growing Asian economic giant has urgent strategic needs to secure its own oil sources - only during the first seven months of this year, Chinese oil imports had risen by 40 percent compared to the anterior year. An estimated six percent of China's oil imports are from Sudan, a number that Beijing officials want to increase. Large investments are already made and others are planned.

China's state-owned oil company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) owns a 40 percent share of the local Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), which controls two of the most important oil fields in the Western Upper Nile Province. Starting in mid-2005, China's CNPC is foreseen to produce oil in the Melut Basin east of River Nile. Other Chinese companies are involved in the construction of the 1,392 kilometre long pipeline from the Melut Basin to Port Sudan at the Red Sea and in the US$ 215 million project of constructing an oil export terminal port in this Sudanese city.

Other important players in Sudan's slowly growing oil industry are mostly from India and Malaysia, two other industrialising Asian countries with urgent strategic needs to secure their parts of the world's oil production in an ever fiercer competition with US interests. India's ONGC Videsh and Malaysia's Petronas have bought substantial shares in Sudanese oil fields as Western companies have been pressured to divest in the country during the last years.

For China, India and Malaysia, therefore, the US draft resolution on sanctions against Sudan to the UN Security Council poses a direct economic threat. Just hours after US Secretary of State Colin Powell told a US legislative committee that the killings in Darfur over the past year "constitute genocide", the US representative in the Security Council, John Danforth, presented the draft that included an embargo on Sudanese oil exports. China, as the only Asian power with veto rights in the Council, however has announced its willingness to block these sanctions.

The pressure on China and other Security Council members is however immense. Global human rights groups, an almost united world press corps and powerful political groupings hold the view that the world is obliged to stop the "genocide in Darfur". Not stopping it would mean being co-responsible, as when the world failed to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Time has run out for Khartoum, which should have acted earlier to stop the "Darfur genocide", they say. China would face strong condemnation if it blocks the UN resolution. The Germany-based Society for Threatened Peoples already yesterday released a statement titled: "China's thirst for oil prolongs genocide in Darfur."

Critics however hold that it was the Western thirst for Sudanese oil that in fact started the fighting in Darfur by training the SLA and JEM (anti-Khartoum) rebels. Chaos in Sudan, German analyst Uwe Friesecke told afrol News, will give Western powers an opportunity to intervene militarily and provoke a change of the unpopular Islamist regime in Khartoum. With new powers thus handed to the World Bank and the IMF to open up Sudan's economy, the country's vast oil reserves would be accessible to Western oil companies, the analyst holds.

According to Mr Friesecke, it is no causality that the powers that are "dictating the peace" between Khartoum and South Sudan - the US, UK, Norway and Italy - are all countries with big oil interest. The US has a declared aim of making Africa one of its main oil providers. Norway bases its economy on oil and is to host an upcoming donor conference for Sudan. Norway's ever-expanding state-owned oil companies are present in many similar zones. The UK and Italy also host major oil companies. "There are made detailed plans for post-peace Sudan in the West," maintains Mr Friesecke, referring to US government sources.

While the debate over the UN Security Council's upcoming Sudan resolution is turning into a power struggle over Sudan's future oil production, more than 1.2 million civilian Darfuris remain displaced and without sufficient international aid. Humanitarian organisations speak of severe lack of funds to secure decent food, water and housing to the many displaced. Most Western powers decrying the "ethnic cleansing and humanitarian crisis in Darfur" have contributed with very little funds, except the US, which is by far the largest donor.

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