KHARTOUM, Sudan, June 23 (UPI) -- Sudan's government is reported to be exploring for oil in the war-torn Darfur region, which, if successful, could halt a threatened renewal of one of Africa's bloodiest civil wars.
The secessionist south is expected to vote for independence in a 2011 referendum, part of a 2005 peace agreement that ended 21 years of war in which an estimated 2 million people have died.
But since most of Sudan's oil fields are in the south, the Arab regime in the north cannot afford to let it do so -- unless Khartoum finds its own oil.
The Paris Web site Africa Energy Intelligence reported this month that the government was concentrating on two key zones in the northern areas it controls -- Darfur in the west and the Red Sea zone in the east.
Images from the Quickbird Satellite indicate that no strikes have been made, the Web site reported. But it said the eastern drive is headed by the Red Sea Operating Cop., a consortium grouping the state-owned Sudapet, the China National Petroleum Corp., Petronas of Malaysia, Express of Nigeria and two Sudanese firms.
Global Witness, the international watchdog group, reported that images from the Landsat satellite showed a grid pattern of seismic activity by oil companies stretching 315 miles across Darfur's desert in the northwest near the Libyan border that began in September 2009.
Other images showed oil exploration camps and large storage depots, the non-governmental organization reported.
Several firms have oil concessions in Darfur, Global Witness said. These include the Great Sahara Petroleum operating Co., a consortium of Saudi Arabian, Yemeni, Sudanese and Jordanian firms.
Government officials said in January that Khartoum wants oil companies to develop a new oilfield in southern Darfur and is planning to offer the zone to investors.
"Were oil to be discovered, it could actually prod the conflicting parties to come to some kind of agreement so that there would then be a basis for exploiting it, and, we would argue, necessarily sharing it in an equitable way," said Global Witness official Mike Davis.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 that ended 21 years of war between the Muslim Arab-dominated north and south, whose population is largely Christian or animist, is generally seen as a "precedent … for sharing oil as a basis for making peace."
The 2005 pact gave the south a measure of autonomy until the future of the country is determined in the referendum set for January.
But Khartoum cannot afford to relinquish the south because that will mean being cut off from the region's oil fields. Khartoum depends on the revenue the region produces.
The south, too, is active on the oil front -- trying to find an alternative route to get its oil to market since the only pipeline there runs northward to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
One option that has gained some traction is a new pipeline southward through Uganda to Kenya's Indian Ocean ports of Lamu or Mombasa.
The Japanese, the second biggest buyer of Sudan's oil after China, has offered to build such a pipeline for $1.5 billion.
Under the 2005 agreement, the ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement agreed that if a majority vote for independence in the referendum, the south will secede so long as at least two-thirds of the registered electorate participates in the poll.
President Omar Beshir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur, warned earlier this month of an "explosive situation" if the south, as expected, chooses independence.
The rivalry between north and south has been heating up in recent weeks, with violent clashes reported along the border zones. There have been reports of government troops seeking to take control of some oil wells.
Sudan has oil reserves estimated at the equivalent of 5 billion barrels. It produces around 500,000 barrels per day, of which 400,000 bpd is exported.
Darfur, an arid desert region in western Sudan, has been devastated since 2003 by a civil war, separate from the north-south conflict.
This one is between the government and Darfur tribes who claim Khartoum has neglected the region and is conducting a war of attrition against then.
The United Nations estimates 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have been driven from their homes.