South Sudanese government troops were battling to recapture the last remaining rebel stronghold of Bor yesterday, the army said, a day after wresting control of a key northern oil city.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN Security Council meanwhile urged South Sudanese President Salva Kiir to free political detainees loyal to rebel leader Riek Machar in order to kickstart stalled peace talks.
The UN leader also warned that evidence of widespread atrocities committed during the nearly month-long conflict would be investigated, and that “perpetrators of serious human rights violations will be held accountable.”
The fighting has forced about a quarter of a million to flee their homes and caused “very substantially in excess” of a thousand dead, the UN said.
The International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, said it believed as many as 10,000 people have been killed in just four weeks of fighting in the world’s youngest nation, which only won independence from Khartoum in 2011.
“There is still fighting near Bor,” South Sudan’s army spokesman Philip Aguer said, amid government efforts to mobilize thousands of more troops and deal a final, crushing blow to Machar — a former vice president and seasoned guerrilla fighter — and his allies.
On Friday, the army marched into Bentiu, capital of the northern oil producing Unity State, although the rebels insisted it was only a “temporary setback.”
Machar said by telephone that his forces would fight on and defend Bor, capital of the flashpoint state of Jonglei and about 200km north of national capital Juba.
“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 by telephone from an undisclosed location.
A rebel military spokesman also claimed that anti-government forces still controlled vital oil infrastructure near Bentiu. South Sudan’s crude production, a key source of income for the impoverished nation, has dropped by around a fifth since the fighting began.
A reporter in Minkammen, across the White Nile from Bor where tens of thousands of people have sought refuge, saw dozens of government soldiers boarding barges and heading to the front line.