Johannesburg (CNSNews.com) - Human rights and religious groups are up in arms over the announcement that a South African state-owned oil and gas exploration company hopes to extend its operations into the Sudan.
The announcement has also pitted two South African ministries against each other.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has warned the Department of Mineral and Energy Affairs that any exploration agreement with the Sudan could be potentially embarrassing for the country.
In North America, a concerted campaign is underway aimed at pressuring oil companies to stop investing in Sudan while slavery and other human rights violations continue.
While the acting chief executive of Soekor, Kevin Stallbom, has denied the oil company is interested in oil exploration in Sudan, the department of Mineral and Energy Affairs has confirmed steps are being taken to sign a deal with the Sudan.
"We can confirm that South Africa is committed to developing relations with Sudan in the area of oil extraction as well as mining," said Deputy Mineral and Energy Affairs Minister, Susan Shabangu.
Soekor was formed in 1965 to reduce South Africa's dependence on imported oil during the period of international isolation over apartheid. It explores for oil and gas off South Africa's shores as well as abroad, with particular focus on Africa and the Middle East.
According to the Sudan News Agency, a high level African National Congress delegation visited the Sudanese capital Khartoum earlier this month. It was widely reported in the Sudanese press that South Africa is looking for greater cooperation between the two countries especially in oil production.
A Sudanese delegation was in South Africa last week to discuss a framework for closer cooperation between the two countries. During talks in Pretoria the Sudanese Foreign Affairs Minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, denied he was in South Africa to negotiate a concession for oil exploration companies to seek oil in southern Sudan.
He also denied that his government was forcibly removing people in southern Sudan to make way for oil concerns such as Soekor.
"Sudan was hoping to buy South African products and attract South African investment and know-how in order to contribute to its ambitious plans to develop infrastructure and industries such as mining and agriculture," Ismail said.
But he did not rule out an exploration deal with Soekor, and said it could have been discussed by others in his government.
"South Africa is welcome to cooperate with Sudan in the energy sector," he said.
The Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) says that money paid by foreign companies to the Sudanese government for oil and mining rights is being used to buy weapons to continue the 18-year civil war in the country.
"The government in Khartoum is forcibly removing people in the estranged south to make way for oil extraction. Oil profits help Khartoum to fight a protracted war against the south," said Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, president of SACBC.
But Ismail denied this and invited the SACBC to visit Sudan to see the situation for itself.
"Our facts come from a recent trip which we made to the Sudan," Napier insisted.
Sudan has been in the grip of a devastating civil war for almost two decades.
Battles between the ruling Islamic fundamentalist north and various Christian and animist factions in the south have lead to the deaths of more than two million people, and the displacement of many more.
Aid agencies operating in Sudan say the fighting has been exacerbated by the growth of the oil industry.
A coalition of human rights organizations and aid agencies has been applying pressure on governments and oil companies, urging them not to invest in Sudan's oil sector.
Meanwhile, the South African government says it hopes to play a more active role in the efforts to end the war in Sudan.
Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said that the two countries would work together to find an end to the conflict.
Sudan is on the U.S. State Department's list of terror-sponsoring states.