April 15, 2014 (KAMPALA) – South Sudanese rebels say they have seized control of Unity state capital Bentiu following heavy clashes with government forces loyal to president Salva Kiir.
The spokesperson for rebel leader Riek Machar, James Gatdet Dak, said while he had been unable to reach Machar directly, he had confirmed the capture of the key oil-rich town from other sources on the ground, including rebel military spokesperson Lt. Col. Peter Riek Gew and eyewitnesses inside the UN base in Bentiu.
“I could hear the ululations of people in the background celebrating its recapture and I couldn’t hear gun shots which suggested that the fighting was over inside the town,” he said.
“To me, the town has fallen to our forces,” he added.
Fighting resumed early on Tuesday inside Bentiu town after rebels entered the city about 6am (local time).
The spokesman for the South Sudanese army (SPLA), Phillip Aguer, earlier denied rebel claims that government troops had been forced to pull back.
“It is not true. The SPLA forces yesterday (Monday) repulsed the attack of Riek Machar rebels, who came from Sudan. Our forces are now in control,” he told Sudan Tribune.
According to Gew, rebels were tracking fleeing SPLA soldiers who were seen heading towards Nhialdiu payam (district) and has urged them to surrender.
Meanwhile, Maj-Gen Peter Gatdet Yaka and Maj-Gen James Koang Chuol, who led the operation, have issued an ultimatum to SPLA soldiers and their commanders, warning them to surrender or risk being killed while hiding in the bush.
According to Dak, Koang, a former SPLA commander who defected to the rebels’ side earlier this year, is expected to to officially take over the administration.
Heavy fighting broke out between rebels and the SPLA around remote oil installations in the north of Unity state over the weekend.
Rebels say the SPLA instigated the fighting after its troops attacked rebel positions, a claim the army has denied.
Multiple sources in the region said heavy gun fire resumed on Monday afternoon and continued on Tuesday morning, forcing civilians to flee to UN camps in Rubkona.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said 10 employees from the Safinat Caspian oil refining company were wounded on Monday when fighting broke out near an oilfield located about 25km north-west of Bentiu.
Five of the 10 employees were wounded, with two said to be in critical condition
A massive government force has been stationed in Unity state since rebel forces were ousted in January.
It is not known how many rebel fighters were involved in the latest offensive.
The eruption of fighting in Unity state comes as the latest blow to a ceasefire deal signed between the South Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition.
Bentiu has changed hands several times since conflict erupted in the nation’s capital, Juba, in mid-December last year before spreading to other areas across the country.
Rebels are demanding the release of four political detainees, who are currently on trial for treason in connection to an alleged plot to overthrow the government, which it claims sparked the violence.
They have also called for the immediate withdrawal of Ugandan troops who are currently providing military support to the SPLA.
The international community has also called for the pull-out of foreign troops, saying it is inflaming tensions in the volatile country.
Machar has also warned against the deployment of foreign troops around oil installations in Upper Nile and Unity states, urging peacekeeping forces with the UNMISS to exercise their mandate.
Peace talks currently being mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have failed to halt the violence, with both sides accusing each other of violating the terms of the 23 January ceasefire deal.
Attempts by Sudan Tribune to contact rebel negotiators in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, for comment on the latest developments have so far been unsuccessful.