Sudan oilfield workers narrowly avoid RSF attack

Oil companies avoided a Rapid Support Forces (RSF) attack on the Balila oilfield and airport in West Kordofan on Monday morning. On Sunday evening, they evacuated all crews from the field to the state capital of El Fula, 50 kilometres from Balila. 

The workers received orders to evacuate the field on Saturday evening, but attempts by the administration to persuade the RSF to stop the attack delayed their evacuation until Sunday evening. 

An oilfield worker, who preferred not to be named, told Radio Dabanga that the engineers were evacuated on Sunday evening to the El Fula military garrison. On Monday morning, they were ordered to leave the garrison for fear of an attack. The authorities later retracted the order after confirming that the RSF would not direct an attack on El Fula. 

People living near the Balila oilfield told Radio Dabanga that the army shelled RSF troops attacking the field, causing them to retreat. This information could not be verified. 

An oil engineer explained that they left the oilfield after closing the productive wells, pumps, and insulators, under the supervision of the oil company’s administration and native administration leaders. 

Workers statement 

The Sudanese Oil Workers Association confirmed that an RSF unit launched its attack on Monday morning, resulting in the occupation of Balila airport and parts of the field belonging to Petro-Energy. 

Petro-Energy signed an agreement between the Government of Sudan and China National Petroleum Corporation on September 26, 1995, to explore, develop, produce, and sell the crude oil produced from a concession area of Block 6. 

Map of oil and gas fields across Sudan and South Sudan, including Balila oilfield in Block 6 (Map: Michael Till-Lambrecht)

In a statement on Monday, the oil workers hold the RSF responsible for the security and safety of all workers and the safety of oil installations, “which belong to the Sudanese people. We warn of the danger of compromising the workers’ safety.” 

A technical and security plan was developed on Saturday to close the Balila field and evacuate workers to a safe place after information circulated that “forces affiliated with the RSF” intended to carry out an attack on the Balila oilfield.  

On Sunday, workers implemented the necessary measures to close all wells and treatment plants in the field in order to preserve the facilities and their safety, and then leave in the evening to safe places. 

“The Oil Workers Association holds the management of Petro-Energy responsible for the safety of workers,” said the statement. It called on the company to speed up their transfer to safety, keep them away from places that may be prone to fighting between the two warring parties, facilitate means of transportation and insurance, and warn them of any delays in evacuating them or sending them to other fields. 

Airport liberation 

The RSF published a video on Monday afternoon showing a force led by Hussein Barshim at Balila airport. In a statement by the RSF’s official spokesperson yesterday, they claimed to have liberated the airport and “inflicted heavy losses, in both lives and equipment” on the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). 

Balila airport is considered a strategic target for the RSF because it can be used to receive external supplies in addition to Nyala airport in South Darfur. The RSF took control of Nyala airport on April 16, after an attack pushed Sudanese forces to the eastern neighbourhoods of the city. 

The amount of oil in Balila oilfield’s reservoirs is estimated at more than 1,300 million barrels. The production of the Balila field previously reached more than 70,000 barrels per day, which has decreased slightly due to the outbreak of war in Sudan. 

The field produces crude oil for El Jeili refinery, north of Khartoum, which provides most of the country’s oil derivatives. The RSF took control of the Khartoum refinery in El Jeili on July 21. Engineers working at the site confirmed that the sudden shutdown of oil pumping caused heavy material losses as the crude oil freezes in pumps and pipes. 

At the start of October, the RSF took control of the oil pumping station in the El Eilafon area, east of Khartoum, which pumps oil coming from South Sudan to Port Sudan, where it is shipped. The El Eilafon staff members were evacuated.  

A few days later, the RSF confirmed the restart of the station and resumption of the flow of South Sudanese oil exports to the Bashayer 1 Crude Oil Terminal in Port Sudan. 

Fears mount as nearby oil subfields risk RSF control, with Balila oilfield already being one of Khartoum’s primary upstream feeders. This potential shift might cripple the SAF’s fuel access, potentially triggering a national crisis. 

Before war broke out between the SAF and RSF, the Balila oilfields were a regular target for various armed groups. 

Last year, Radio Dabanga reported that armed men launched rocket and grenade attacks on the field, as well as intimidating workers with leaflets reading “leave with your family before you perish.”

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