April 20, 2012 (JUBA) – South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit on Friday said his forces were still in full control of the disputed oil-rich area of Heglig and dismissed claims by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) that it recaptured the town.
- Salva Kiir (Reuters)
In a televised address to the nation on Friday evening, Kiir said Khartoum was fooling itself by celebrating the imaginary recapture of Heglig, adding that the SPLA will only voluntarily withdraw from the area over the next three days according to the plan laid out by Juba earlier in the day.
On Friday Salva Kiir ordered the withdrawal of the SPLA forces from the area, saying he was responding to the pressure exerted on his government by the international community including South Sudan’s friends who had been calling for withdrawal of his army from Heglig.
Khartoum on Friday following news of the decision by Juba to withdraw its forces from Heglig announced the recapture of the town and organised street celebrations that were broadcast on state television.
Sudan’s Defence Minister Abdel Raheem Muhammad Hussein said in a speech also broadcast on state television that the Sudan Armed Forces had "liberated" Heglig.
But Kiir challenged Khartoum to prove to the world that they have recaptured Heglig by showing live fresh pictures of its forces inside the disputed town. He said as of Friday, the SPLA was still in full control of the area, and held positions 24 miles north of Heglig town and that SAF was still in retreat northwards.
He said the withdrawal will take three days to complete, but warned that should SAF resort to attacking SPLA forces and bombarding South Sudan’s territory, South Sudan’s army will hit back hard.
He said Khartoum was attempting to fool the world with propaganda about Heglig, saying SAF has lost badly in their several attempts to recapture the town.
He urged South Sudanese citizens of the country to remain calm and vigilant, warning that the SPLA is ready to hit back should SAF attempt to advance after the decision to withdraw.
He said his country was ready to go for international arbitration over all the disputed border areas with Sudan.
The minister of information in South Sudan, Barnaba Marial, also speaking on South Sudan TV on Friday evening mocked the announcement of Heglig’s takeover by Sudan’s Defense Minister, saying he wondered why such a senior official would lie to his people that they had recaptured the town.
Marial said the South Sudan army was in full control of Heglig and will withdraw at will in three days in implementing the resolution of the UN Security Council.
A reporter for Sudan Tribune based in Unity State said that according to his sources SPLA forces were still inside Heglig town on Friday and that there had not been any fresh clash with SAF forces during the day.
Earlier on Friday Kiir released statement saying his country would still claim ownership of Heglig - known as Panthou in South Sudan - at the International Court of Arbitration if diplomatic and bilateral efforts fail.
“The decision to pull out troops from Panthou (Heglig) without prejudice to our stance that Panthou remains an integral part of the Republic of South Sudan is in the interest of this nation," the statement from office of the president said.
“We expect that the final status of Panthou (Heglig) and other disputed borders areas will be referred for international arbitration on the final determination of their status”, the release adds.
Highly placed sources in the office of president told Sudan Tribune on Friday that president Kiir did not sleep the whole night of Thursday due to telephone calls from world leaders and diplomats.
The source said he can remember president receiving seven international calls one after the other from world leaders including, US President Obama, Japan, China, UN Security Council president Susan Rice, UK prime minister David Cameron, the AU, all of them advising Kiir to withdraw. Sudan Tribune was not able to reach the countries mentioned to verify the calls on Friday evening.
The SPLA troops would remain on the ground in the key oil area for a further three days, the source said.
The country’s minister of information and broadcast, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, while reading out the presidential statement, said Kiir still believes that Panthou remains a part of the new nation but would allow its final status to be determined by the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
“The decision of the president to order withdrawal of the troops from the area does not deny us the right we have on this area. Panthou”, he said.
Juba says that Heglig was administratively transferred to the north only after oil was discovered in the 1970s.
Colonel Philip Aguer, spokesman of the country’s army said the army will respect the decision of the president to withdraw from the area and that withdrawal process would be completed within three days.
Aguer, however, added that withdrawal of the forces from the does not mean the army was not able to defend it or that it was defeated by the Sudan Armed Forces but were obeying orders from the president whom he said is South Sudan’s commander in chief.
“The withdrawal of the troops is not that we were defeated and it doesn’t also mean that we are abandoning the area. No. we are accepting it because we do not want to contradict decision of the president. If our territory is being occupied we will not wait for the international community," Aguer said.
He said SPLA troops "will remain around the area to react to any incursions and react" is SAF’s "bombardment" of Unity State "doesn’t stop."