February 18, 2014 (JUBA) – Sources from the South Sudanese rebels have claimed to have recaptured much of the strategic oil-rich town of Malakal on Tuesday morning, adding that the whole state capital will be under their full control in a matter of hours.
The sources further said that Ugandan warplanes have also taken off from Juba, the South Sudanese capital, and launched air attacks against the rebels around the Upper Nile state capital.
“Our positions came under attacks by the government forces outside Malakal this morning and we had to strike back and pushed them back into Malakal. We have now recaptured about 70% of Malakal city and moving on,” said a military commander around Malakal who preferred anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the rebels.
Malakal – Rebel forces loyal to former Vice President Dr Riek Machar have stormed the Upper Nile State capital, Malakal this morning forcing a contingent of government forces, UPDF and SPLM -N to leave.
The attack on government forces in the town was anticipated since yesterday morning as the rebels were seen amassing and advancing on the other side of Sobat.
Rebels sources claimed that they have captured heavy ammunitions and with scores of tanks.
According to the UN, the fight started early in the morning and lasted only 2 hours.
There was no immediate comment from the government sources to confirm or deny rebels claims.
Reuters – South Sudanese rebels attacked the capital of oil-producing Upper Nile state on Tuesday, a spokesman for the regional administration said, the first fighting in a provincial capital since rebels and the government signed a ceasefire in January.
Philip Jiben told Reuters that rebels loyal to the country’s former vice president, Riek Machar, struck at around 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) and that SPLA government forces were engaged in battles in Malakal’s northern, southern and central zones.
Rebel forces could not immediately be reached for comment, but President Salva Kiir’s government and rebels who support Machar have both accused the other of violating the January 23 ceasefire deal brokered by neighboring east African states.
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 neighboring Ethiopia.
“The fighting is continuing, but our forces are still in control of Malakal,” Philip Jiben, spokesman for the Upper Nile administration, told Reuters by telephone. Gunfire could be heard in the background as he spoke.
A U.N. official said he had received reports of fighting in Malakal but could not confirm them. The town fell into rebel hands after fighting first broke out in mid-December before the army recaptured it last month.
It was not immediately clear which rebel faction had attacked Malakal, a dusty market town on the banks of the White Nile. Machar says he controls all anti-government forces but analysts question the loyalty of some groups which have their own grievances against the Juba government.
STALLED PEACE TALKS
Thousands of people have been killed and more than 800,000 have fled their homes since fighting was triggered by a power struggle between President Kiir and Machar, his former deputy whom he sacked in July.
The conflict has already forced South Sudan to cut oil production by a fifth to 200,000 barrels per day, all of which is currently pumped from Upper Nile. Oil accounts for 98 percent of government revenues.
Oil firms in South Sudan, a country the size of France, include China National Petroleum Corp, India’s ONGC Videsh and Malaysia’s Petronas. Work in some fields has been suspended.
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 army, withdraw from South Sudan.
Government officials privately acknowledge negotiations are unlikely to make progress until the senior political figures are freed. The government accuses the detainees of an attempted coup.
(Reporting by Carl Odera; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Edmund Blair and Jon Boyle)