JUBA, South Sudan: Sudan said Friday its forces drove South Sudanese troops from a contested oil town near the countries' ill-defined border border while the south tried to put a good face on events, saying it was withdrawing.
South Sudanese troops took over Heglig last week, sending Sudanese troops fleeing and sparking condemnation from the U.N., America and Britain. This time, Sudan sent South Sudanese in headlong flight, Sudanese officials said.
The two countries were on the brink of all-out war this week. 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.
South Sudan broke away from Sudan last year after an independence vote, the culmination of a 2005 peace treaty that ended decades of war that killed more than 2 million people. 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.
Amid the international condemnation and what Sudan said was a counterattack, South Sudan appeared to blink.
In Khartoum, Sudan's capital, Sudanese Minister for National Defense Abdel-Rahim Hussein told his countrymen in a statement Friday that his forces have defeated South Sudan forces in Heglig and drove them out of the city.
"Your victorious Armed Forces have managed to liberate Heglig city by force from the remnants of the south Sudan army and its mercenaries," he said in a statement carried by Sudan official news agency. "Your armed forces have entered at 2:20 p.m. and held Friday prayers inside the city."
In Juba, South Sudan's capital, government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin read a presidential statement saying the south 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.
In Thursday's ceremony in Khartoum, some 2,300 fighters from the volunteer Popular Defense Brigades, known as "mujahedeen," or "holy warriors" pledged their loyalty to al-Bashir before being sent to fight the South Sudanese, according to the state news agency SUNA. It was not clear if they participated in any fighting at Heglig.
Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, Sudan's ambassador to the U.N., 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 U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the sides to negotiate.
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 U.S. 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. AGENCIES