South Sudanese government forces pressed yesterday with an offensive to wrest back South Sudan’s main oil hub from rebel forces as Washington voiced fears the nation it helped establish was already collapsing.
The worst fighting centered around Bentiu, where forces loyal to former South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar have been holding off the army of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, leaving the oil town ransacked and emptied of its civilian population.
The UN, which shelters more than 8,000 people at its Bentiu compound, said its mission in South Sudan had cut off military links with the government and was ready to fend off any attack.
UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the outcome of the battle for Bentiu, capital of Unity state, was “unclear and fluid.”
He said there are now more than 60,000 people at UN compounds across South Sudan, half of them in Juba and another 9,000 in Bor, the rebel-held capital of Jonglei state.
In total, there are now probably more than a quarter-million people displaced by the fighting, UN Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous said, after briefing the UN Security Council on the crisis.
No current figures on a death toll were available, Ladsous added, but he estimated it was “very substantially in excess” of the 1,000 deaths the UN reported just after conflict erupted on Dec. 15.
An army spokesman said on Thursday troops loyal to Kiir had closed in on Bentiu. He also reported that combat was raging about 15km from Bor, the only other major town in rebel hands, about 200km north of Juba, the capital.
An AFP correspondent in Minkammen, on the other side of the swamps of the crocodile-infested White Nile River from Bor, said hundreds of people are making a perilous journey by boat and on foot to escape the fighting.
Many recounted tales of horror, including civilians mown down with machine guns as they fled, and gunmen torching entire villages and looting crops and livestock.
“They had a machine gun raised up on a sandbank, and they fired and fired and fired as we swam,” said Gabriel Bol, a cattle herder. “The bullets were hitting the water, but we knew we could not stop or they’d shoot us.”
The UN Security Council has approved sending an extra 5,500 troops to South Sudan, who are only slowly arriving.
With peace talks in neighboring Ethiopia at a deadlock, Washington said South Sudan risked imploding, less than three years after gaining independence from Khartoum in July 2011.
“Today, tragically, the world’s youngest country and undoubtedly one of its most fragile democracies is in danger of shattering,” US Assistant Secretary for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield told lawmakers in Washington on Thursday.
“Each day that the conflict continues, the risk of all-out civil war grows as ethnic tensions rise,” she added.
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice called in a statement on both sides to “immediately sign” a proposed ceasefire deal, but she singled out Machar, saying he “must commit to a cessation of hostilities without precondition.”