JOHANNESBURG -- Sudan claimed Friday it had driven South Sudan forces out of the strategic Sudanese oil town of Heglig, while South Sudan President Salva Kiir -- facing international condemnation -- ordered his troops to withdraw.
The withdrawal saw the fractious neighbors step back from the brink of war after a sudden escalation in tensions following South Sudan’s seizure last week of Heglig, Sudan’s most important oil producing area.
It wasn't clear whether South Sudan withdrew under international pressure, prompting Sudan to claim victory, or whether its forces were driven out, as Khartoum claimed.
South Sudan had been under enormous international pressure to pull its troops out of Heglig, an occupation U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called “illegal” Thursday. He also condemned Sudan’s bombings of South Sudan.
Sudan President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir claimed Friday to have retaken Heglig by force after a fierce battle. South Sudan didn’t clarify its position on the northern claim it had forced a retreat. Both sides often provide blustering, contradictory versions of events on the disputed border.
South Sudan separated peacefully from Sudan in July. The two sides had fought a 22-year civil war that resulted in 2 million deaths but agreed to a 2005 peace deal that allowed the south to secede in 2011 if it wished.
The peace deal left many of the most intractable differences unresolved between the neighbors, including the border, now in serious dispute, and shares of oil revenues, another major source of tension.
Last week’s escalation of hostilities and rhetoric sparked fears the two countries were headed back into a ruinous civil war that would destroy the oil sector both countries depend on, and cost many civilian lives.
In Khartoum, Sudanese Defense Minister Abdel-Rahim Hussein issued a statement Friday saying that his forces had defeated the opposition in Heglig in time for Friday prayers.
“Your victorious Armed Forces have managed to liberate Heglig city by force from the remnants of the South Sudan army and its mercenaries. Your armed forces have entered at 2:20 p.m. and held Friday prayers inside the city, " he said in a statement, the Sudan official news agency reported.
A military spokesman for the South Sudan government, Philip Aguer, said Friday’s withdrawal did not mean his country had abandoned the area.
“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. He said the southern army was ready to react to any Sudanese incursions and respond if Sudan did not cease bombing in South Sudan.
Both sides claim Heglig, but the international community sees it as part of Sudan. Sudan occupies another disputed border area, Abyei.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: People cheer Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir in Khartoum on Friday Credit: Abd Raouf / Associated Press