December 20, 2013 (BENTIU) – The South Sudan army (SPLA) fourth division commander, James Koang Chuol, has dismissed claims that the Unity state capital, Bentiu, had fallen into rebel hands.
- Thousands have fled to the UN compound in Juba after political tensions in the country escalated into violence (Photo: Reuters)
In an interview with Sudan Tribune on Friday, Chuol confirmed that SPLA forces from the rival Nuer and Dinka tribes had clashed, adding that order had since been restored.
Heavy gunshots were fired into the air from the fourth infantry’s headquarters on Thursday night, sparking panic among civilians in the capital.
The sound of gunfire continued throughout the night, although Chuol maintains the situation was under control by Thursday morning despite shooting spreading to surrounding villages around the capital.
The commander, who is stationed in Unity state, confirmed that fighting again erupted on Thursday about 7pm (local time), destabilising the security situation in Bentiu and Rubkotna county.
Four people were reportedly killed in Thursday night’s clashes, although state officials have yet to confirm the number of casualties.
Chuol told Sudan Tribune that he had intervened to defuse the situation following a heavy exchange of gunfire between SPLA forces and rebel soldiers.
The commander said he urged both sides to remain calm and not to let the events in the nation’s capital, Juba, escalate further.
Fighting in Bentiu followed clashes between oil workers from rival clans at the Unity and Tharjath oil fields, which left 16 dead, while over 200 people from the Dinka tribe are seeking refuge in the UN compound in Bentiu town.
According to acting state governor Mabeak Lang De Mading, the incident took place at about 2am (local time) when oil company employees from the Nuer tribe coordinated twin attacks on both oil fields, targeting Dinka employees in the area.
SPLA has reported that two high-ranking officials also died in the clashes, but Chuol did not release the names of those killed.
There were reports of looting in Rubkotna county by local residents and SPLA soldiers.
However, Chuol said the looting was carried out by local residents before they fled Rubkotna for Bentiu and occurred after SPLA forces had departed from the area.
“Now you can even see in the roads now full of civilians taking a huge property to Bentiu”, Chuol said.
Bentiu resident Kalany Khantold Sudan Tribune he blamed the current crisis on the ongoing power struggles within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), accusing the leadership of destroying the country’s image.
Meanwhile, Khan urged youths across the nation to remain calm and not resort to violence.
“I can say to youths don’t [get] involved [in] this problem. Let us come together and solve the problem to get the solution”, he said.
Tensions have been building in the Nuer community in Bentiu after it emerged around 500 people were killed by security personnel loyal to South Sudanese president Salva Kiir in an outbreak of violence in the capital, Juba.
The fighting has now spreading to different parts of the country, including Jonglei state, where the security situation is deteriorating after rebel soldiers took control of the capital, Bor.