South Sudan announced Friday that it will pull its forces from the disputed border territory of Heglig, a move that from the ground appeared more like a retreat intended to cover up a military thrashing at the hands of a Sudanese counterattack.
Whether the return of the disputed oil town to Sudan’s control will end the war between the neighbors remained to be seen. It was unknown late Friday whether Sudanese forces intended to pursue the South Sudanese army back across the border or had halted.
There were no official casualty figures, but the two weeks of fighting likely resulted in hundreds of dead.
South Sudanese generals seemed tense here Friday, 55 miles south of Heglig. There was heavy bombing, they said, toward the front lines. But there was no sign of an imminent drawdown; several hundred red-bereted commandos arrived from the south, packed like sardines on heavy trucks, heading north. Just the previous day, the South Sudanese deputy intelligence chief, Mac Pual, had said that the government still had plans to take Kharasana, a Sudanese military stronghold 30 miles north of Heglig. According to sources, the South Sudanese army and allied Justice and Equality Movement rebels from Darfur had struck close to Kharasana on Thursday before being repulsed.
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What changed on Friday was unclear, but the mood at the military barracks was decidedly somber, as commanders disappeared inside for long meetings.
At the military hospital here, wounded soldiers told of heavy fighting. Hospital officials said the facility held 150 patients, twice its capacity, even though those with serious injuries are evacuated or referred to the civilian hospital.
The wounded soldiers said they were outmanned and outgunned, and under heavy aerial bombardment. Morale seemed to be low.
John Okeny, with a bandage on his left elbow, described fierce opposing ground attacks and supreme air power. “They are bombing us continuously,” he said
Asked if he would agree to rejoin the front lines when he returned, he shook his head vigorously: no.
In the early afternoon, Pual said that the Sudanese counteroffensive was underway and that the fighting had pushed to the vicinity of the town of Heglig.
The general refused to allow journalists access, saying the South Sudanese army was not currently in “control of the situation.”
When asked if it was true that the Sudanese army had entered Heglig again, he replied, “That’s what we are going to the front to confirm.” Just then, a flurry of trucks rolled up and swept the officers away.
Then, South Sudan announced its withdrawal.
A statement from the office of the South Sudanese president said the withdrawal would be completed in three days and would not affect South Sudan’s claim to the Heglig region. Referring to the region as Panthou, with Heglig in parentheses, the statement said the final disposition of the area would be left to an international commission, however.
It also called on Sudan “to immediately desist from aerial bombardments and ground incursions into the territory of the Republic of South Sudan.”
As the government was announcing its withdrawal, Sudanese media was claiming victory and showing video purporting to be Sudanese troops in Heglig.
With South Sudan retreating, all eyes will now be on Khartoum. If Sudanese President Omar Bashir lets South Sudan withdraw peacefully, he would be exhibiting uncharacteristic restraint. Even if he’s amenable to peace soon, he may want to exact revenge first.
South Sudan has important oilfields of its own right across the border. There were unconfirmed reports Friday night that part of the Heglig oil facilities were on fire.
Bentiu, the capital of South Sudan’s Unity state, is just two hours drive from Heglig, and many here feel the war could reach them. Most international aid organizations evacuated their staffs here last week after Sudanese fighter jets bombed the town three times.