South Sudan said Wednesday it has pulled out its troops from a contested area along the border with Sudan shortly after clashes between the two countries' armies sparked fears of a return to war.
Military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said that southern troops had "disengaged and withdrawn" from Heglig, an oil-rich area claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan.
Clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces and South Sudan's army erupted Monday afternoon, but the two sides disagree on how the fighting started. The south says Sudan bombed its positions and then sent in ground troops. Sudan said the south started the fighting.
"It was never our policy to occupy and capture Heglig," Aguer said. "It was the aggression of the Sudan Armed Forces that brought us to the area."
The fighting came one week before a scheduled visit by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to Juba for continued talks on critical issues such as oil sharing and border demarcation. Al-Bashir was also expected to sign a deal on citizenship and immigration between the two nations reached two weeks ago in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Sudan's Ministry of Information said Wednesday that talks with South Sudan are on hold.
"The talks between the two countries will be on hold until South Sudan proves to have good faith and intention," the Ministry of Information said.
The statement argued that the Sudanese government entered the negotiations with South Sudan with good intentions and a sincere commitment to renew trust and establish peace.
"We were surprised by the actions of South Sudan," Sudan's ministry said. "Heglig is not one of the disputed border points that were discussed in Addis Ababa last year."
Meanwhile Sudan's Oil Minister Awad Al Jaz visited the Heglig area.
"We will not attack anyone but we will never allow any agent to violate our national territories," he said.
On Monday night, Sudanese Second Vice President Alhaj Adam Yousif announced on state television that al-Bashir's visit to South Sudan next week had been canceled.
Observers worry that the clashes around Heglig have scuttled a rare run of good relations and positive cooperation between the two nations which have yet to resolve a number of issues stemming from the secession of South Sudan in July.
But South Sudan says it is still holding out hope that a deal can be reached. According to South Sudan's information minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, al-Bashir's invitation to Juba still stands.
"We have not received any official communication (from Khartoum) so we are assuming he is still coming," he said.
Associated Press reporter Mohamed Osman in Khartoum, Sudan contributed to this report.