January 8, 2013 (BENTIU) - Fear that South Sudan’s military could soon retake Bentiu, the capital of oil-producing Unity state, from a faction of the army that defected over two weeks ago has led to thousands of civilians fleeing the area.
- Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, visits locals sheltering in a temporary camp in Bentiu in South Sudan December 24, 2013, in this handout photo from the United Nations Mission In South Sudan (UNMISS).
Over 8,000 people have taken refuge in a United Nations bases in Bentiu, the UN’s top humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, said on Wednesday. Over 60,000 people are already sheltering in UN bases in Juba, Bor and other parts of South Sudan.
Lanzer that the United Nations Mission in South Sudan base in Bentiu was "witnessing a lot of new arrivals" from "Different communities coming to seek safety."
On his twitter profile the UN’s second top diplomat said that "extra teams" had been placed at the "UNMISS gates to ensure that all civilians trying to enter can do so, safely."
Heavy fighting broke out on Wednesday between government forces and the opposition soldiers in the western part of Unity state Mayom County despite ongoing face-to-face discussions delegations from the government and those opposed to President Salva Kiir’s leadership in Ethiopia capital Addis Ababa.
Peter Riek Gew the spokesperson of the rebels in Unity state told Sudan Tribune that the government troops and a group of former rebels - the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) - who are now allied to president Kiir attacked their positions in Mayom county on Wednesday.
The rebel spokesperson said that their forces lost control of Mayom county after serious clashes. However he claimed they would retake the Mayom town with the next 24 hours.
News that Mayom had fallen to the South Sudanese army (SPLA) caused panic among many civilians in Bentiu. The BBC has reported that government troops are believed to be about 25 kilometres from Bentiu.
Gew and other officials of the administration appointed by commander James Koang, who led the defection of the Unity state division of the SPLA against the government, called on the public to remain calm and not flee their homes in an address on state-run radio.
"We are telling our people to remain in homes and should not move their children away into bushes for no reason. We are capable to crush them in the next hours to come and am sure by tomorrow you will hear different story", said Gew.
This is the most serious incursion into Unity state’s Mayom county since the division defected on 21 December following clashes between members of the presidential guard in Juba on 15 December.
Over 200,000 people have been displaced in fighting since President Kiir accused some members of the ruling SPLM, including his former Vice President Riek Machar, of attempting to stage a coup.
The international community is urging the warring parties to resolve their differences through peace talks, which are being facilitated by East African mediators.
South Sudanese oil production has dropped by 20% since the conflict started in part due to oil workers being evacuated from Unity state’s oil fields.