After nearly going to war with Sudan in April, South Sudan has pulled out its police from the flashpoint region of Abyei. The former civil war foes face UN sanctions if they don't resolve their differences peacefully.
South Sudan has withdrawn its police forces from the disputed oil-producing region of Abyei, the United Nations and the African Union (AU) confirmed on Friday.
The withdrawal is part of an AU roadmap to settle outstanding disputes between South Sudan and Sudan. Abyei is an oil-producing region claimed by both sides. Sudan, however, occupied the region in May 2011.
Some 700 South Sudan police have been withdrawn from Abyei, according to the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA). In March, the UN estimated that Sudan has 400-500 soldiers stationed in the region while South Sudan has 300 soldiers less than two miles from its border with Abyei.
"The UN mission is in the process of verifying that all South Sudan police elements have withdrawn from the Abyei area," Martin Nesirky, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, told reporters.
The AU said the "withdrawal would mark a significant step in the normalization of relations between the two countries and the creation of confidence between them."
The US welcomed the South's withdrawal and called on Sudan to follow suite.
"We urge all parties to abide by their agreement to a cessation of hostilities and the resumption of negotiations on outstanding security and political issues," the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said in a release.
Long road to peace
South Sudan seceded from Sudan in July 2011 through a referendum under the 2005 peace deal that ended a decades-long civil war which killed 2 million people. Under that same deal, Abyei is also supposed to decide its political fate through a popular vote. The referendum, however, has never materialized because the two sides have not been able to agree on who should participate in the vote.
In April, tensions between the two sides nearly boiled over into outright war after the South seized oilfields near the town of Heglig, which are critical to the North's economy. Ultimately, the South withdrew under international pressure.
The UN Security Council passed a resolution on May 2 threatening to impose sanctions against both countries if they did not adhere to a ceasefire, which went into effect Saturday, and return to AU-sponsored negotiations.
South Sudan has accused Sudan of launching airstrikes against its territory despite the ceasefire. Sudan regularly denies such allegations.
The two sides still have to demarcate their border and resolve citizenship issues. They also have to come to an agreement on how much the landlocked South should pay to send its oil to northern ports for export.
slk/jm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)