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South Sudan eases crisis by withdrawing from disputed oil area

South Sudan has ignored a number of provocations including the bombing of civilian targets

The immediate prospect of a broader war between the two Sudans receded yesterday after South Sudan withdrew its forces from disputed oil fields that are claimed by the northern government.

South Sudan said it would make an “orderly withdrawal” from the Heglig fields it occupied last week in response to appeals from the UN and world leaders.

The government in South Sudan's capital, Juba, said the move was intended to “create an environment for the resumption of dialogue” and would be completed in three days. The statement made it clear that the south continues to claim Heglig, which supplies nearly half of the north's oil, as part of its territory.

The move contrasted sharply with the rhetoric from Khartoum where President Omar al-Bashir has vowed to “free the south” and retake Juba less than one year after the south seceded with overwhelming public support. Leaders of the north's ruling party, the NCP, have referred to southerners as “insects” as the war of words has escalated.

The north is already battling three rebellions inside its own territory and Mr al-Bashir is still being sought for war crimes in Darfur by the International Criminal Court. The divorce of the Sudans has left a number of incendiary border disputes including the contested enclave of Abyei which northern forces occupied in defiance of international agreements last year. Observers have noted that South Sudan has ignored a number of provocations including the bombing of civilian targets within its border and armed incursions by Khartoum forces.

The announcement by South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, also called for UN monitors to move into Heglig. There are 7,000 troops in the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan and a further 4,200 Ethiopian blue helmets in the disputed Abyei enclave who needed a special mandate to move in. UN forces have a mixed record in Southern Kordofan, the state where the recent fighting took place. The Independent uncovered evidence last year of serious failures in the UN mission to protect civilians under attack by Khartoum's forces.

According to an international arms survey, both sides are supporting rebel groups in each other's territories with South Sudan accused of arming former civil war allies in Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains. The south has also accused Khartoum of supporting a number of insurgent groups including the Lords Resistance Army who are active on South Sudan's borders with Central African Republic and DR Congo.

In addition to the border arguments, the two Sudans have yet to reach a comprehensive divorce settlement that would deal with the division of oil re

sources - the majority of which are inside the south. The only pipeline infrastructure needed to export the oil runs through the north but Khartoum is accused of charging excessive transport fees which prompted Juba to shut off production earlier this year.

Formerly the largest country in Africa, Sudan endured near constant civil war after independence from Britain in the 1950s. Two million people lost their lives in the last conflict which lasted 20 years and pitted the Arab and Muslim dominated north against the predominantly Christian and non-Muslim south. Many of those who fought Khartoum in that war did so not to free the south but to change the regime and deliver a “New Sudan” that would respect religious and economic rights.