JUBA, South Sudan – Sudan and South Sudan both claimed to be in control of a contested oil town near the countries' ill-defined border on Friday after the south said it was withdrawing its troops to avert a return to war.
Last week, South Sudanese troops took over the border town of Heglig, which they call Panthou, sending Sudanese troops fleeing and sparking condemnation from the U.N., America and Britain. This time, Sudan sent South Sudanese in headlong flight, Sudanese officials said.
Facing international condemnation, the spokesman for South Sudan's President Salva Kiir announced Friday that the south would withdraw its forces within three days but still believes that the town of Heglig is a part of South Sudan. Kiir said he expects its final status to be determined by international arbitration.
The announcement from Kiir was followed by a statement from Sudanese Minister for National Defense Abdel-Rahim Hussein that his country's forces had defeated South Sudan's forces in Heglig and driven them out of the city.
"Your victorious Armed Forces have managed to liberate Heglig city by force from the remnants of the South Sudan army and its mercenaries," he said in a statement carried by Sudan official news agency. "Your armed forces have entered at 2:20 p.m. and held Friday prayers inside the city."
Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, Sudan's ambassador to the U.N., also told reporters that Sudanese forces "chased out the aggressors from Heglig."
But late Friday, South Sudan's U.N. envoy told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that "the forces of the Republic of South Sudan are still in Heglig, in full control of Heglig as we speak."
Ambassador Agnes Oswaha said "journalists and observers and international monitors are highly welcome to Panthou to get a proof of who is there."
"If my forces were not there, why would I give a three-day ... schedule for withdrawal? I would have said I have withdrawn," she said.
Oswaha said the withdrawal "is a sign of our commitment to peace and to dialogue and to continue with the negotiations," adding that Kiir is ready to hold the summit that was canceled by Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir.
The two countries were on the brink of all-out war this week.
Al-Bashir on Wednesday threatened to topple the South Sudan government after accusing the south of trying to take down his Khartoum-based government. Al-Bashir continued his hardline rhetoric on Thursday in an address to a "popular defense" brigade headed to the Heglig area.
South Sudan broke away from Sudan last year after an independence vote, the culmination of a 2005 peace treaty that ended decades of war that killed more than 2 million people. Despite the treaty, violence between the two countries has been on the rise, in part because the sides never agreed on the where the border lies, nor how to share oil revenues from the border region.
The U.S. welcomed the decision by South Sudan to withdraw its forces.
"In parallel, we're also calling on the government of Sudan, as we have regularly, to halt their own cross-border attacks, particularly the provocative aerial bombardments, so that we can get back to a place where these two sides are working together," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.
Military aircraft from Sudan have been bombing the border area and into territory that is clearly South Sudan's.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took note of South Sudan's withdrawal announcement and urged the governments of the south and north to resume negotiations immediately under the auspices of the African Union's high-level panel, U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.
In Thursday's ceremony in Khartoum, some 2,300 fighters from the volunteer Popular Defense Brigades, known as "mujahedeen," or "holy warriors" pledged their loyalty to al-Bashir before being sent to fight the South Sudanese, according to the state news agency SUNA. It was not clear if they participated in any fighting at Heglig.
Osman, Sudan's U.N. ambassador, said Sudan wants peace, will not cross the border into South Sudan and is ready to negotiate with its southern neighbor provided that the government in Juba "comes to its senses."
The increased hostilities had world leaders concerned about a return to war. The Arab League on Thursday announced an emergency session next week to discuss the crisis, while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the sides to negotiate.
Ban on Thursday called on South Sudan to immediately withdraw from Heglig area, saying the invasion was "an infringement on the sovereignty of Sudan and a clearly illegal act." He called on the government of Sudan to immediately stop shelling and bombing South Sudanese territory and withdraw its forces from disputed territories, including Abyei.
South Sudan's announcement on Friday comes only days after a visit to South Sudan's capital by Princeton Lyman, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan. Lyman told Kiir and other southern leaders there was a "unanimous" negative international reaction to South Sudan's push into Heglig and said the world community was discussing imposing sanctions in response to the military maneuver. Last year, troops from Sudan moved into Abyei and forced southern troops out of it. The south though, still believes Abyei is its territory. Benjamin, the spokesman for the south's government, said that the withdrawal from Heglig is similar: South Sudan believes it owns the land but is still withdrawing to de-escalate tensions.
Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.