South Sudanese President Salva Kiir on Friday ordered the immediate withdrawal of his troops from the contested Heglig oil field, as the two former civil war foes inched back from a wider war.

“The Republic of South Sudan announces that the SPLA [Southern army] troops have been ordered to withdraw from Panthou-Heglig,” said Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin, reading out a presidential statement. “An orderly withdrawal will commence immediately and shall be completed within three days,” the statement added, potentially easing conflict that has threatened to plunge the countries back into war.

Fighting between Sudan and South Sudan escalated earlier this month, following the South's April 10 seizure of Heglig, which makes up around half of Sudan's oil production for its faltering economy. Sudanese troops launched a renewed counter-attack late on Thursday with air strikes hitting Southern troops entrenched along the frontline, a Southern army spokesman said.

However, reports from border areas suggested heavy fighting was still ongoing as Khartoum's troops sought to drive out the withdrawing Southern troops.

International powers have called on Juba to pull back its forces, but it had resisted those calls, insisting it would do so only after Khartoum withdrew its troops from the neighbouring contested Abyei region.

On Thursday, United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon condemned the South's taking of Heglig as an “illegal act”, but Juba still maintained on Friday that Heglig — which it calls Panthou in the local Dinka language — was its territory.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has called for the destruction of the “insect” Juba government, and has launched waves of air strikes against the former civil war foe.

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