By Michael Onyiego / AP
JUBA: South Sudan said Friday it will withdraw its troops from an oil town claimed by Sudan, pulling the two nations back from the brink of all-out war. Sudan said the withdrawal wasn’t voluntary and that its troops routed the southern forces.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir said the south still believes that the town of Heglig is a part of South Sudan and that its final status to be determined by international arbitration. South Sudanese troops took over Heglig last week, sending Sudanese troops fleeing and sparking condemnation from the UN, America and Britain.
South Sudan broke away from Sudan last year after an independence vote, the culmination of a 2005 peace treaty that ended decades of war. Despite the treaty, violence between the two countries has been on the rise, in part because the sides never agreed on the where the border lies, nor how to share oil revenues from the border region.
Sudan President Omar Al-Bashir on Wednesday threatened to topple the South Sudan government after accusing the south of trying to take down his Khartoum-based government. Al-Bashir continued his hardline rhetoric on Thursday in an address to a “popular defense” brigade headed to the Heglig area.
Amid the international condemnation and what Sudan said was a counterattack, South Sudan appeared to blink.
In the presidential statement he read, South Sudan government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin said it would withdraw its forces from Heglig, which he referred to by the name the south calls it — Panthou. Military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said the withdrawal would be completed within three days.
“It doesn’t mean we are abandoning the area. If our territory is being occupied we will not wait for the international community,” Aguer said. The southern military, known as the SPLA, “will be there to react to any incursions and react if (the) bombardment doesn’t stop.”
Military aircraft from Sudan have been bombing the border area and into territory that is clearly South Sudan’s.
Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, Sudan’s ambassador to the UN, told reporters that Sudanese forces “chased out the aggressors from Heglig.”
“It is not a withdrawal,” Osman said. “We ran them out.”
He said Sudan wants peace, will not cross the border into South Sudan and is ready to negotiate with its southern neighbor provided that the government in Juba “comes to its senses.”
The increased hostilities had world leaders concerned about a return to war. The Arab League on Thursday announced an emergency session next week to discuss the crisis, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the sides to step back from the brink of war and return to the negotiating table.
Ban on Thursday called on South Sudan to immediately withdraw from Heglig area, saying the invasion was “an infringement on the sovereignty of Sudan and a clearly illegal act.” He called on the government of Sudan to immediately stop shelling and bombing South Sudanese territory and withdraw its forces from disputed territories, including Abyei.
South Sudan’s announcement on Friday comes only days after a visit to South Sudan’s capital by Princeton Lyman, the US special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan. Lyman told Kiir and other southern leaders there was a “unanimous” negative international reaction to South Sudan’s push into Heglig.
Lyman said the world community was discussing imposing sanctions in response to the military maneuver. The meeting in Juba between Lyman and Kiir was attended by Britain’s representative to South Sudan, Alastair McPhail.
“We hope that the withdrawal will be orderly and both sides will refrain from further military action and return to the negotiating table and pursue territorial claims at the negotiation,” McPhail said.
Last year, troops from Sudan moved into Abyei and forced southern troops out of it. The south though, still believes Abyei is its territory. Benjamin, the spokesman for the south’s government, said that the withdrawal from Heglig is similar: South Sudan believes it owns the land but is still withdrawing to de-escalate tensions.