Rebel leader Riek Machar pledges to continue fight against government forces
South Sudan’s army says it has regained control of the rebel-held town of Bentiu, handing the government control of Unity State’s oilfields where production had been halted.
The army had earlier announced it was mobilizing thousands of additional troops as it battled to recapture two rebel-held cities, including Bentiu, although regional mediators were still hopeful a ceasefire could be reached.
“It happened on Friday January 10, at 2.30pm,” Philip Aguer, army spokesman, said.
“When you control Bentiu, you control all the oil fields in Unity state.”
Forces in Bentiu loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar had been holding off the army of President Salva Kiir for several days, leaving it ransacked and emptied of its civilian population.
Machar confirmed rebel forces had lost control of the northern oil hub, but pledged his fighters would continue their battle against the government.
“We withdrew from Bentiu, but it was to avoid fighting in the streets and save civilian lives. We fight on, we will continue the battle,” Machar said from an undisclosed location in the country.
He said the rebel side would remain engaged in peace talks that are taking place in Addis Ababa.
“Yes, we are committed,” he said, without giving any indication if he was willing to agree to an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.
Speaking here in Addis Ababa, a rebel military spokesman described the loss of Bentiu as a “temporary setback”.
“Our forces made a tactical withdrawal to avoid civilian casualties,” Lul Ruai Koang said.
“The government does not have the capacity to defeat us militarily,” he added, accusing the South Sudanese government of “bringing in mercenaries” from neighboring Uganda and the Darfur region of Sudan.
He also said rebels still controlled Unity State’s oil infrastructure outside Bentiu.
Fierce battles have also continued around Bor, another rebel-held town in central South Sudan that has already changed hands three times since the conflict began nearly a month ago.
In the capital Juba, the government’s allies from several regions say they are in the process of calling up thousands of former soldiers to shore up the South Sudan army.
“We have to mobilize all SPLA soldiers, all former soldiers who were in the Sudanese army,” Clement Wani Konga, governor of Central Equatorial State, said, adding 3,000 extra troops had been found in his region alone and a further 12,000 were expected to soon be armed and ready.
Nevertheless, here in Addis, where the peace negotiations are being held under the auspices of the East African regional bloc IGAD, the chief mediator is still optimistic.
“If you ask me about the possibilities of signing, I am very optimistic … because we have now come a long way in establishing understanding between the parties,” Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin said.
He said he expected a ceasefire in “the shortest possible time”.
Death toll approaches 10,000
The death toll in South Sudan’s four-week-old conflict may be close to 10,000, as fighting continues in the world’s newest nation, the International Crisis Group said.
“We believe the death toll to be approaching 10, 000,” Casie Copeland, an analyst for Brussels-based ICG, said. The United Nations has said the conflict has killed thousands of people and forced about 270,000 to flee their homes. The rebels estimate that as many as 6,000 people may have died.
Government forces were as of Friday January 10, advancing on Bor, the capital of Jonglei state that’s currently held by the rebels.
Fighting began on Dec. 15 after President Salva Kiir accused former Vice President Riek Machar of trying to stage a coup, a charge Machar denies. The dispute escalated into clashes between members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer group.
South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to BP Plc data. It has been exporting all of its crude – about 245,000 barrels a day – through pipelines across Sudan. The fighting has cut output to about 200,000 barrels daily, according to the government. Oil exports provide more than 95 percent of state revenue.
The U.S. “strongly believes” that Kiir’s government should release 11 politicians arrested after the violence started. The authorities in Juba have refused calls by the rebels, the U.S., the European Union and East African mediators to free the detainees.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he called Kiir and urged him “to demonstrate leadership and political flexibility by immediately releasing political prisoners.”
The prisoners have political grievances and “it’s important those grievances be heard,” “This crisis will not be solved on the battlefield.”
The detainees, who include Pagan Amum, former secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and Deng Alor, ex-minister of cabinet affairs, have said their imprisonment “should not impede the progress of negotiations.”
An additional 5,500 security personnel the United Nations Security Council authorized to strengthen a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan will take four to eight weeks to complete deployment, Herve Ladsous, the UN under secretary-general for peacekeeping said.
(Compiled from agencies)