January 9, 2008 (AFP)
North Sudanese troops have completed their withdrawal from oil rich areas of the south, a southern general said on Tuesday, heading off the latest brewing north-south crisis.
"They have gone," Major General Mai Hoth, deputy chief of the southern former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, told AFP. "The equipment and the headquarters will be handed over to us tomorrow."
He said only a handful of northern troops remained as they had not been able to find transport home.
A joint defence council had given the northern troops until Wednesday to leave after they failed to meet a December 31 deadline that was part of a deal that saw southern ex-rebels return to government after resigning in October.
Their withdrawal from the unity cabinet was the worst crisis to hit the 2005 peace deal that ended Africa's longest-running civil war. An estimated two million people were killed and another six million displaced in the two-decade-long conflict.
Under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which created a southern autonomous government and two separate armies, northern troops should have withdrawn from the south by July 9 last year.
However, the north had moved only two-thirds of its forces by that date, according to the United Nations, setting off a protracted war of words that culminated in the south recalling its ministers from the unity government.
The south estimated that the north still had up to 18,000 troops in the oil areas.
Hoth said that by Monday evening, those who had failed to get transport were only "probably a few dozen."
The northern troops will also on Wednesday hand over their headquarters in Bentiu, in Unity State, where 80 percent of Sudan's 500,000 barrels per day of oil is drilled, to the Joint Integrated Units, Hoth said.
The joint units, comprised of equal numbers of ex-rebels and northern troops, are supposed to patrol the oil areas, according to the peace agreement.
The north had in the past argued that its army needed to remain in the south to protect the oil wells, as the joint units had not been set up by the time the ex-rebels walked out of the national government.
President Omar el-Bashir on Monday directed the ministry of finance to provide money for the redeployment and training of the joint forces set to take over the oil areas on Wednesday, the day the country marks the third anniversary of the peace agreement on January 9, 2005.
The northern withdrawal comes against the background of renewed fighting between southern Sudanese forces and Khartoum-backed Arab tribesmen.
Dozens of people have been reported killed since fighting first erupted late last month near the disputed Abyei oil areas between Arab tribesman and ex-rebel south Sudanese army units.
The south has accused individuals within the northern armed forces of backing the militias, including in the recent fighting.
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