KHARTOUM: Sudan says three foreigners and a South Sudanese national arrested by authorities in a disputed area on the border with South Sudan had military hardware and an armored vehicle in their possession but a representative for one of the foreigners said Sunday that they were on a mine clearing mission.
The arrests are a sign of the increased tension along the disputed border, which has seen a spike in clashes between Sudan and the newly created state of South Sudan in recent weeks. The violence has brought the two nations, already at odds over demarcating the border and dividing oil revenue, to the brink of war.
Sudanese army spokesman Col. Sawarmi Khalid Saad said on state television late Saturday that the four - a Briton, Norwegian, South African and South Sudanese - had military backgrounds. The four were arrested in the oil-rich region of Heglig, captured by South Sudanese troops earlier this month. Sudan later said it took the region back.
Saad said the four were carrying out military activities in Heglig, but did not elaborate. Their arrest, he added, supported claims by the Khartoum government that South Sudan used "foreigners" when it captured Heglig.
In Oslo, a Norwegian humanitarian organization said on Sunday that one of its employees, 50-year-old John Soerboe, was among the four. The group denied he was on a military mission and said he had been working for more than seven years to clear the region of mines.
The Norwegian People's Aid organization called Soerboe "one of our most experienced aid workers." Per Nergaard, the group's head of emergency preparedness, said Soerboe used to be in the Norwegian military years ago before turning to humanitarian work. He had been working in southern Sudan since 2005.
He said in a statement on the group's website that Soerboe was on a five-day "routine" mission in a region that borders Sudan to the north. He was traveling with representatives from South Sudan's and the U.N.'s anti-mine organizations, Nergaard said.
Nergaard did not know the names of the others arrested, or have details of the incident. They were arrested by Sudanese authorities and brought to Khartoum, he said.
"The circumstance surrounding their arrest and exact location at the time is yet unclear," he said.
"Our main priority now is to ensure that Soerboe and his colleagues are safe and to assure their rapid release. We are working closely with the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and our U.N. partners to assure this," Nergaard said.
The Norwegian organization has been working in the area since 1986.
A spokesman for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, Frode O. Andersen, said Oslo "had demanded access to the Norwegian citizen."
"We have asked for a clarification on why he was arrested, and we want to find out the charges against him," Andersen said.
In a statement, Britain's Foreign Office confirmed a British national had been detained and said it was "urgently investigating" the details of the arrests. The ministry said it had requested immediate access to the Briton, but had no other details.
The South African Foreign Ministry's international relations department said Sunday it is following up on reports of the arrest of a South African man in a mine clearing detail near the South Sudan border.
South Sudan seceded from Sudan last year after a referendum held as part of a 2005 peace deal that ended more than 20 years of civil war, but unresolved issues such as the sharing of oil revenues and demarcation of the border have led to tensions and clashes.
Associated Press writers Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, David Stringer in London, and Angus Shaw in Harare, Zimbabwe contributed to this report.