BENTIU, South Sudan — A brief but bloody border war in the disputed oil fields of central Sudan appeared to be over on Friday, as South Sudan announced that its troops would withdraw from the Heglig oilfields it occupied two weeks ago.
The fighting over Heglig signaled a dramatic deterioration in relations between South Sudan and its northern neighbor, which have been at loggerheads since southern independence in July last year. War loomed between Sudan and South Sudan over the territory.
The dispute hinges on the sharing of oil revenues, border demarcation, citizenship and questions over how to divide the national debt. The governments in the rival capitals of Juba and Khartoum have accused one another for months of backing proxy forces, but in Heglig the two armies went head-to-head for the first time since a 2005 peace deal ended 22 years of civil war.
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When South Sudan's army seized Heglig on April 9, the town was strewn with the rotting bodies of northern soldiers. South Sudan's aggression triggered days of aerial bombardments by Khartoum, underscoring the depth of hostility between the two old enemies.
The fighting was matched by belligerent rhetoric, which appeared to ratchet up the likelihood of war. "They started the fighting and we will announce when it will end, and our advance will never stop," President Omar al-Bashir told a rally.
But Friday, the South Sudan government made an abrupt reversal and announced it would pull back its troops from Heglig.
“The Republic of South Sudan announces that the SPLA [southern army] troops have been ordered to withdraw from Panthou-Heglig,” said Barnaba Marial Benjamin, the country’s information minister, using the southern name for the area.
The withdrawal would begin immediately and should be completed within three days, he said at a press conference in the capital Juba.
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For its part, Sudan’s defence minister said the northern army had “liberated” Heglig, and Khartoum celebrated its military victory.
Despite the South’s attempt at face-saving in Bentiu, the closest southern town to the fighting, it looked like a defeat for the South Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
On Friday morning reinforcements continued to arrive, with at least five truckloads of southern soldiers seen in the town 55 miles south of Heglig.
Just the day before, commanders had insisted to GlobalPost that they would hold Heglig and even continue moving north towards the town of Kharasana, which also houses a Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) base.
But two days of aerial bombardments and ground attacks appeared to have taken a heavy toll on the South's forces. At the military hospital inside the 4th Infantry Division barracks, there were 150 casualties and only 72 beds.
In any case, most of the soldiers — suffering flesh wounds, fractures and burns as a result of the bombings — sat outside beneath trees rather than in the sweltering wards.
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Medical director Captain Zacharia Deng said the hospital’s four doctors and two anaesthetists were struggling to cope with the influx.
“We do not have enough space,” he said. More wounded were expected to arrive on Friday evening.
Among the injured was Private Anthony Agok, with a bandaged hand, who said he was hit in his foxhole by a blast from a bomb dropped from a Sudanese Antonov aircraft on Thursday. Other soldiers sported bandaged limbs and heads. A few were smeared in white cream to ease the pain of extensive burns to their arms and faces.
Private Agok said he was keen to continue fighting. “As long as I live, the North will not occupy our territory,” he said, repeating the southern claim that Heglig lies on the south side of the disputed border.
But others were less gung-ho.
Private John Okeny, whose elbow was struck by shrapnel during a bombardment, also on Thursday, said he had had enough. “They bombed us continuously from noon till six,” he said.
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The retreat from Heglig illustrated with deadly effect the superior military power that Sudan enjoys over its southern neighbor: SPLA troops could not withstand the sustained air attacks launched by Khartoum.
But with South Sudan insisting that it was not giving up its claim to Heglig, the halt in fighting may only be temporary.
In January, South Sudan shut off oil production, a move that is strangling the economies of both North and South, both of whose economies are heavily reliant on oil revenues.
South Sudan's assault on Heglig — which was described as “illegal” by the UN and the African Union — was an attack on Sudan’s ailing economy, as most of its oil revenues come from that one field.
But the attempt to deal a mortal blow to Khartoum’s economy has come at a high price for South Sudan. Juba was widely condemned for its aggression, and has been forced to withdraw under military pressure, leaving it in a weaker position diplomatically and militarily.