South Sudan has withdrawn its troops from a contested area north of the border in Sudan following clashes this week with Sudanese armed forces. The renewed fighting has set back efforts to resolve multiple disputes between the two sides.
SPLA soldiers withdraws
South Sudan's Deputy Defense Minister Majak D'Agoot says the army, known as the SPLA, has “disengaged” from the contested town of Heglig.
SPLA soldiers had pursued Sudanese forces into the area following purported air strikes in South Sudan's Unity State earlier this week. Khartoum has denied carrying out the air strikes, and has accused Juba of instigating the fighting.
D'Agoot told VOA that all SPLA troops had drawn back from Heglig by Tuesday, and are now conducting patrols south of the border. He said the move was an effort to calm tensions and to put African Union-mediated negotiations with Khartoum back on track.
“We have moved back because there was no strategic policy directing basic retaliatory action by our forces to pursue the aggressors into the contested zone because we want to settle this matter amicably, as part of the ongoing process under the AU in Addis,” D'Agoot said.
Dispute over oil
Khartoum and Juba had been involved in talks in Addis Ababa to settle a number of issues left unresolved when South Sudan declared independence from the north in July last year, following two decades of civil war.
On top of the agenda is a dispute over oil. South Sudan shut down oil production in January after accusing Sudan of stealing oil being pumped through northern pipelines. Khartoum says it was confiscating oil to compensate for unpaid transit fees.
African Union chairman Jean Ping has expressed “very deep concern” about escalating tensions between the sides.
In a statement issued late Tuesday, Ping said said “military means will never provide a long-term answer" to the issues affecting relations between the two countries.
The sides signed a memorandum of understanding last month agreeing to refrain from violence during the peace process.
South Sudan's D'agoot says Khartoum was quick to violate the pact.
“Right from the time we signed the memorandum of understanding, they kissed it goodbye as soon as it was signed. The following day they started air attacks on our territories and a number of land aggressions, so this is part of their strategy to continue to destabilize South Sudan,” he said.
Talks between the two sides appeared to be making progress on some remaining disputes before the recent clashes.
Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir was scheduled to attend a summit in Juba on April 3 to discuss citizenship issues and the final demarcation of the border with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. Sudanese media reported this week the trip was canceled due to the violence.