JUBA, April 12 (BSS/AFP) - Sudanese warplanes launched their first attack on a major South Sudanese town on Thursday, as border clashes escalated in the third straight day of violence and fears of all-out war grew.
Five bombs were dropped at dawn targeting a strategic bridge on the edge of Bentiu, the capital of the oil-producing Unity border state and some 60 kilometres (40 miles) from the frontier where rival armies are fighting.
"They dropped bombs in Bentiu town -- apparently they were aiming for a bridge," South Sudan's deputy information minister Atem Yaak Atem told AFP.
"The population is staying in their places, when the planes come they lie down," said Gideon Gatpan, Unity state information minister, adding the village of Thoan had also been bombed, closer to the frontier with the Sudan.
The latest clashes, the worst since South Sudan won independence in July after one of Africa's longest civil wars, have brought the two former foes the closest to a return to outright war.
Parliaments in both countries on Wednesday urged their respective citizens to take up defences, but Atem said the South still did not want to go to war.
"Our position is not to go to war except in self-defence," Atem said, adding that there were no reported casualties from Thursday's raid.
He said the targeted bridge was near a United Nations compound, slightly outside the town and on the road leading north to the frontline.
"It doesn't take us by surprise, as all along they have been looking for excuses to go to war," he added.
"They never acknowledged the fact that South Sudan became independent... this (bombing) is to express their bitterness for the South going its own way."
This week's clashes follow border fighting that erupted last month between the neighbours. Each side has blamed the other for starting the hostilities.
The unrest has prompted Khartoum to pull out of AU-led crisis talks aimed at resolving the protracted dispute with Juba over oil, border demarcation, contested areas and citizenship issues.
Khartoum has vowed to react with "all means" against a three-pronged attack it said South Sudanese forces had launched against Sudan's South Kordofan state, including the Heglig oil field.
A statement on Khartoum's official SUNA news agency warned of "destruction" in South Sudan.
"I think they want to disable communication and transport -- they said they were going to destroy the South," Atem added.
"They have attacked other places like villages and oil installations and oil fields outside towns, but Bentiu is the first town to be hit."
The international community, including the African Union, United Nations and the United States, has called for restraint and voiced deep concern at the escalation of violence which saw South Sudan's army seize the Heglig oil region.
UN leader Ban Ki-moon urged South Sudan President Salva Kiir to meet with his rival from the north, while the US State Department has urged both sides to end "all hostilities".
"Both governments must agree to an immediate unconditional cessation of hostilities... and cease all support to armed movements from the other state," said US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Some two million people died in Sudan's 1983-2005 civil war between southern rebels and Khartoum, which paved the way for splitting of Africa's largest nation into two.
Hundreds of thousands of citizens of each nation living in the territory of the other country are also facing uncertain futures after a deadline requiring them to formalise their status expired at the weekend.