JAU, South Sudan (Reuters) - South Sudan began pulling its army out of a buffer zone with its old civil war foe Sudan on Sunday and thousands of troops streamed out of this border garrison town.
The creation of a demilitarized buffer zone is seen as a crucial first step in resuming landlocked South Sudan’s oil exports through Sudan, which Juba shut off in January last year during a row with Khartoum over fees.
On Thursday, South Sudan’s petroleum minister said the oil firms had been given orders to resume production, which he estimated would take two to three weeks.
Two columns of infantry carrying guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, chairs, buckets, radios, chickens and ammunition marched out of the town, a cluster of straw huts in the dusty earth by Lake Jau.
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in July 2011 but the two remained mired in disputes over the border, oil, debt and accusations of support for rebels in one another’s territory.
After months of tangled African Union-brokered talks, the two agreed this month to a time frame to carry out deals signed in September to set up a demilitarized border zone and restart southern oil exports through Sudan.
On Sunday, the commander of the South Sudanese army’s (SPLA) 4th division, Koang Chol, addressed thousands of troops in Jau, a garrison town South Sudan took from Sudanese troops last year.
“We are implementing the orders of our government to withdraw our forces 10 kilometers south,” he said.
Tanks and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns accompanied the troops. Philip Aguer, the SPLA’s spokesman, said 3,000 soldiers pulled out, and the rest would leave on Monday.
A few score soldiers remained behind after the main group left. Broken bicycles, playing cards and blackened teapots lay scattered on the ground.
The withdrawal of South Sudan’s troops from the border area has worried locals who fear that they will now lack protection.
Nialual Jau, a paramount chief for Pariang county in the Unity border state, said the withdrawal from Jau would leave the local community vulnerable to cattle raids and called on the government to send police in as soon as possible.
“The withdrawal of the army to me, I think it is bad, because this is where I was born. My father was born here. We have seen the army is moving back, but it’s difficult, because it looks like we’ve been betrayed.” he said.
South Sudan seceded under the terms of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between the government in Khartoum and southern rebels. Some 2 million people died in the civil conflict, one of Africa’s longest and deadliest.
Tensions left over from the conflict still linger between different communities, particularly in areas along the roughly 2,000 km border which saw heavy fighting during the conflict.
Jau said the pullout threatened to create a security vacuum militias could exploit. “We need protection,” he said.
Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Stephen Powell