March 20,2013 (JUBA) - South Sudan’s army said Wednesday that it has completed its troop withdrawal from all areas along the border with neighbouring Sudan, with whom they have engaged in sporadic clashes over disputed areas since the South’s independence in 2011.
However, the Southern military (SPLA) said they will continue to keep a close eye on the border. South Sudan often accuses the Sudanese military and its allied militias of cross-border attacks, while Khartoum accuses Juba of backing its former allies who are fighting Sudan’s army (SAF) north of the border in Blue Nile and South Kordofan.
The withdrawal of both sides 10km from the contested border is the belated implementation of an agreement signed in September to create a demilitarised buffer zone.
“We have accepted to fully and unconditionally pull out our troops from all the areas defined as buffer zones in this state within time, according to the African Union Security Map and in compliance to orders from our general command”, Major General Santino Deng Wol said on Wednesday.
Wol, who is the commander of the SPLA’s third division which is based in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, said police forces would take over from the army to fill the security gap caused by the army’s withdrawal.
The agreement signed by the two countries in Addis Ababa on 12 March provides a clear timeline and framework for the establishment of a Safe Demilitarised Border Zone (SDBZ).
The area will be monitored by the UN peacekeeping force in Abyei (UNISFA) as part of the Joint Border Verification Monitoring Mechanism (JBVMM).
However, the withdrawal of South Sudan’s troops from the border area has worried locals who fear that they will now lack protection and be exposed to cattle raids and attacks by militia.
Just days after the two sides agreed to withdraw their troops from the tense and heavily militarised border zone, South Sudan accused its neighbour of launching a fresh ground attack in Northern Bahr el Ghazal on 17 March, killing at least one civilian and wounding others.
Northern Bahr el Ghazal was shocked when the disputed ‘Mile 14’ area, which is claimed by both countries, was included in the border buffer zone, with many claiming that the area has never been included in Sudan’s East Darfur state.
“The area is no longer under our control. It is now fully empty. Our departure, as you know, was not in the interest of the local people. There were a lot of mixed reactions, particularly in the areas of Kiir Adem and Warguet. Citizens there raised a lot questions”, Wol said.
The senior military official explained that the withdrawal of the troops not only raised alarm and anxiety from the citizens but also several questions which he and the regional sector commander could not immediately provide responses to during their visit to witness the troop withdrawal.
“We are now receiving complaints and reports that some armed groups from the other side have moved into the area. They have said they have celebrated and claimed to have taken over the area. This shows that our response to orders from above to withdraw has been misinterpreted on the other side”, Wol told Sudan Tribune by phone from Wunyiik, the SPLA’s headquarters in the area.
He stressed that the army will continue to “do the best” within its “capability” to provide protection, explaining that they were complying with orders from the senior level of command.
“There is nothing we could do because as soldiers we work on orders. We complied and moved out because that it is the nature of the army anywhere in the world. The army does not discuss orders. They simply comply and execute orders but this does not mean we shall completely abandon our constitutional mandate to protect this country and the citizens against foreign aggression. We have moved out but will keep [an] eagle eye [on Sudan], Wol added.
He said the army had “strong standing orders” to remain on maximum alert and were prepared to respond to any security situation anywhere in the country.
Many officials and local residents have expressed fears that armed groups allegedly backed by the government of neighbouring Sudan may use the newly created buffer zones to launch attacks on the area.
The agreement between Sudan and South Sudan, signed in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa after African Union-brokered talks, is aimed at ending long-running hostilities over border and security issues.
It also allows for the resumption of oil production which South Sudan shut down last January following a dispute over the cost of transporting oil to international markets through Sudanese pipelines.
The suspension has sparked an economic crisis in the two Sudans, with both countries depending heavily on oil for revenue and the foreign currency it uses to import food and fuel.