South Sudanese rebels said they had taken control of the capital of oil-producing Upper Nile state yesterday, in the first fighting in a major town since rebels and the government signed a ceasefire last month.
The Juba government confirmed an assault was launched but denied rebels controlled the town, which lies 650km north of the national capital, Juba. It is also located on the fringes of one country’s main oil-producing areas.
The clashes will fuel concerns over the security of South Sudan’s northern oil fields — an economic lifeline for the world’s newest state — and raise pressure on both camps to revive stalled peace talks in Ethiopia.
Gathoth Gatkuoth, commander for rebel forces in Upper Nile who is a close ally of former South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar, said by telephone that his forces struck Malakal yesterday morning and swiftly retook the dusty market town.
“The rebels have violated the ceasefire and attacked Malakal this morning,” said Philip Aguer, spokesman for the government army, denying the town had fallen.
Aguer said that fighting continued in Malakal’s southern area although he said communication had been lost.
Aguer’s comments came after a spokesman for Upper Nile’s regional administration said clashes began about 7am and that the army was engaged in battles in Malakal’s northern, southern and central zones.
A Reuters photographer, who had been travelling with rebels this month, said the forces had been moving toward Malakal.
The rebel assault on the town may be aimed at strengthening its hand before a second round of peace talks begin.
Situated on the banks of the White Nile, Malakal first fell to rebels after fighting broke out in the middle of December last year before government forces recaptured it last month.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir’s government and rebels who support Machar have both accused the other of violating the Jan. 23 ceasefire deal brokered by east African states.
Thousands of people have been killed and more than 800,000 have fled their homes since fighting was triggered by a power struggle between Kiir and Machar, whom Kiir sacked in July last year.
UN spokesman in South Sudan Joe Contreras said a UN camp in Malakal, where many of the displaced people had fled for protection, had been caught in the crossfire.
South Sudan says it has been forced to cut oil production by a fifth to 200,000 barrels per day, all of which is pumped from Upper Nile. Oil accounts for 98 percent of government revenues.
Malakal lies about 140km from Paloch, an oil complex where a key crude oil processing facility is situated.
“All the oil from the fields around Upper Nile is pumped to Paloch,” said Jacob Jok Dut, director of the Centre for Democracy and International Analysis, who follows the oil industry closely. “If Malakal comes under rebel control, then definitely there will be tension in and around Upper Nile.”
Peace talks had been due to resume last week, but were held up by a rebel demand that four remaining political prisoners held by the government be released and the Ugandan military, which is supporting Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army, withdraw from South Sudan.
The government says the detainees tried to launch a coup.