BENTIU, South Sudan — Sudanese forces launched a major attack along the border with South Sudan after the South Sudanese army withdrew from a disputed oil field on Friday, signaling that the recent border war between the two countries is not yet over and might be entering a new phase.
Thirty-five miles south of the border, at the nearest town, the only sign of the fighting was trucks offloading wounded soldiers at hospitals. Medics at a military hospital and a civilian hospital, where the more serious cases were taken, said that the soldiers came in with gunshot wounds and that they described heavy ground fighting south of the border.
At the South Sudanese military barracks on the edge of town, Maj. Gen. Mac Paul, South Sudan’s deputy military intelligence chief, said the Sudanese attack started at 1:30 p.m. and continued in several waves.
Paul said the Sudanese forces had pushed as far as six miles into South Sudan’s territory before being repulsed back to Tishwin.
Journalists have been denied access up the road near the fighting for several days, sinking the conflict into a misty swirl of claims and counterclaims between the two countries without independent confirmation of who controls what or where.
But the fact that there was heavy ground fighting confirms that the conflict did not end after South Sudan pulled out of Heglig, the disputed oil field it captured this month, sparking international condemnation.
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The South Sudanese government said it withdrew from the battered oil and military outpost because of diplomatic pressure.
“We can’t be a pariah state when we are not even one year old,” South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar said in an interview in Bentiu on Saturday.
The South Sudan government has been adamant that it pulled back unilaterally and was not pushed out militarily. Machar said there was no fighting on Friday when the withdrawal was announced.
That is not true, according to witnesses at the front lines, which paints a picture of a steady strategic retreat southward by South Sudan since Thursday.
A bandage around his right hand, Samuel Bol sat in an inner courtyard in the military hospital in Bentiu. For three days, he was stationed at a defensive position north of Heglig. The South Sudanese forces were under heavy aerial bombardment, and on Thursday, a heavy ground attack started.
“Their forces just kept growing and growing,” he said. “We had to withdraw to protect the tanks.”
They pulled back to Heglig, where he was injured on Friday afternoon defending the airstrip from oncoming troops. It was about at the same time that South Sudan announced it was withdrawing from Heglig in response to international pressure.
Machar said that South Sudan’s army left Heglig at 9 p.m. Friday and pulled back to Tishwin, the old border between the two.
That withdrawal could have been the end of the conflict. But Sudanese President Omar Bashir vowed to chase the South Sudanese forces across the border.
Unlike the area of Heglig, the area south of Tishwin is not a disputed territory and has never been claimed by Sudan.
It was not known how far Sudan aims to march south or for what reasons. Both sides heavily reinforced along the border, but no other major fronts have broken out.