December 21, 2013 (LONDON) - Forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) loyal to South Sudan’s former vice-president, Riek Machar, announced that they have taken control of the strategic oil-rich region of Unity state, six days after fighting erupted in the capital, Juba.
- An SPLA soldier walks away from a vehicle in Juba on 21 December 2013 (Photo: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)
Machar told BBC on Saturday that his troops were now in control of “much of the country”, including Bor, a strategic town, which is also the capital city of South Sudan’s most populous state, Jonglei.
SPLA spokesperson Col. Philip Aguer confirmed the fall of Unity state on Saturday, following a declaration by SPLA’s division four overall commander, Maj. Gen. Koang Chuol, that the region had fallen under the control of Machar, while in the state capital, Bentiu.
Regional leaders have been trying to initiate dialogue between Machar and South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir Mayardit. However, Machar said Kiir must step down first before meaningful dialogue can take place to restore peace in the country. He also demanded the release of his colleagues arrested in the wake of the clashes last week.
Fighting reportedly started when a misunderstanding ensued between members of the presidential guards inside a barracks in Juba.
Peter Adwok Nyaba, the former national minister of higher education, said the violence erupted when bodyguards loyal to Salva Kiir, predominantly from the Dinka tribe, tried to disarm their Nuer colleagues under orders of the president.
However, Kiir said the violence was a coup attempt instigated by his political opponents.
With the violence also spreading to the other states, there are fears that the situation will further escalate despite government assurances that the situation is now under control.
Thousands of civilians, mostly from the Dinka ethnic group, are fleeing the capital Juba every day, crossing into Uganda, amid rumours that forces loyal to Machar may attack the capital at any time.
Reports say Juba airport is also congested, with thousands of people attempting to leave.
MACHAR CONDEMNS ALLEGED AIR RAID
In comments to BBC on Saturday, the former vice-president on Saturday said that the Ugandan air force had carried out bombing around Bor town on Saturday, backing Kiir’s forces to retake Bor.
There were unconfirmed reports that one fighter jet was shot down. Two US aircraft were also hit while trying to evacuate their nationals from Bor, injuring four of its crew members, according to the office of the US special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan.
The Ugandan government has denied having bombed Bor, although they confirmed the presence of their troops inside South Sudan “to rescue their nationals”.
Thousands of civilians, predominantly from the Dinka ethnic group, have sought refuge in the UNMISS compound in Bor, as well as other bases across the country.
Machar’s forces are also said to be in control of Mangala military base, which is about 30kms from Juba, in Central Equatoria state. Many believe they are planning an attack on the capital.
The US administration has warned that the international community will not condone or recognise any attempt by rebels to take over Juba.
“The United States and other partners are committed to the realisation of South Sudan’s full political, social, and economic potential, but make no mistake: these cooperative efforts will be undermined if political disputes drag the country back into senseless conflict and strife. Moreover, any armed attack on the capital will be seen as an attempt to achieve an unlawful usurpation of power, which would be universally condemned”, US secretary of state John Kerry said in a statement on Saturday.
“Those who seek to take or hold power by violence or division of South Sudanese along ethnic lines will not have our support. Violence today will not pave the way for a more stable or prosperous tomorrow”, he added.