January 14, 2014 (NAIROBI/JUBA) – Rebels in South Sudan on Tuesday claimed they seized the strategic town of Malakal, the capital of the oil-rich Upper Nile state in the northern part of the country, despite government denial.
- South Sudan’s former VP Riek Machar addresses a press conference (Getty)
Speaking exclusively to Sudan Tribune from his base in South Sudan, the former vice-president, Riek Machar, said his forces recaptured Malakal town at around 10am, adding that they were now in full control after flushing out pro-government forces.
“Our forces have recaptured the state capital Malakal this morning and are now in full control of the town,” Machar confirmed.
The rebels, according to its leader, also captured 500 AKM rifles, 30 RPG-7, 90 PKM, several military vehicles and one tank from the army.
He explained that his forces retook Malakal after taking control of Baliet county, one of the few counties inhabited by the Dinka ethnic group. This group, according to Machar, are yet to surrender to his forces, who reportedly control most counties of the oil-rich state.
Machar further disclosed that Melut and Renk were the other Upper Nile counties not yet under the control of his rebel forces.
He said in the battle for control of Baliet on Monday, the SPLA Sector II commander, Gen. Johnson Gony Biliu, narrowly escaped from the battle as pro-government forces were reportedly driven back to Malakal before they allegedly lost control of Malakal on Tuesday.
REBEL CLAIMS DISMISSED
An official from Upper Nile state government, however, condemned Tuesday’s attack by armed groups loyal to Machar, saying the army remains in full control of the oil-rich capital, contrary to Machar’s claims.
“As the government , we condemn in the strongest term possible this barbaric act to destabilise the state. There was no reason for violence behavior, and I would like to tell our people that our gallant SPLA forces remain ready and committed to defend this country and provide protection", Phillip Jaden, the state information minister told Sudan Tribune.
“What you have heard about Malakal was propaganda. It has not been captured. I am talking to you from Malakal town. What happened was that the white army attempted to attack the airport this morning, but they were repulsed”, he added.
ARMY ADMITS CLASHES
The spokesperson for South Sudan army (SPLA) confirmed the clashes between rebels and the army in Malakal, but dismissed Machar’s claims that his forces controlled the strategic oil-rich town.
“Yes, there is a fighting in Malakal”, Aguer told Sudan Tribune by phone. He also said the SPLA had made significant advance towards Bor, the Jonglei state capital and that it was a matter of time before the town fell into government hands.
"Our forces are marching on Bor. There has been very heavy fighting since Monday," Aguer said.
But a seemingly confident Machar told Sudan Tribune that government forces should “forget about recapturing the Jonglei state’s capital, Bor, and instead think about the fate of the nation’s capital, Juba”.
The South Sudan rebel leader claimed the country’s capital was “being besieged by his forces from different angles”.
UN EXPRESSES CONCERNS
Martin Nesirky, the spokesperson of the United Nations Secretary General confirmed reports of heavy fighting between pro and anti-government forces in Malakal on Tuesday, saying nearly 20,000 civilians had sought refuge at its base.
"Stray bullets are reported to have landed inside the UN base, wounding internally displaced people who had sought shelter there. The UN Mission says it is treating dozens of patients for wounds at its hospital," Nesirky said in a statement.
He also calls on all the parties to respect the integrity of UN installations as the mission continues to protect civilians across the country. As many as 65,000 civilians are reportedly sheltered at UN bases all over the country due to the violence.
More than 200,000 people, the UN mission said, drowned on Sunday when a boat in which they traveled capsized in the White Nile River between Malakal and Lelo in Upper Nile State.
"The civilians were reportedly fleeing fighting in the area", the UN official said, adding that the mission was seeking to verify reports of casualties involved.
REBELS CLAIM ADVANCE TOWARDS JUBA
The rebels, according to the ex-vice president, were advancing towards Juba, and that his forces on Monday engaged in heavy fighting when government soldiers reportedly launched another offensive against rebel positions on the Juba-Bor road.
“Our forces on Monday repulsed the government’s troops at Gut Makur area and pushed them back south of Mangala toward Juba. We are determined to capture Juba soon,” said Machar.
The rebel leader described Monday’s fighting on Juba-Bor road as “one of the fiercest” battles out of the 11 offensives his forces repelled since Bor’s recapture from government forces nearly two weeks ago.
“They involved a big number of soldiers backed by six Ugandan helicopter gunships, tanks and heavy weapons including B-30,” he said, adding, “yet they were defeated and pushed back”.
The SPLA spokesperson, however, denied the rebels’ claims that they had captured Mongalla, a strategic area on the place on the river Nile, located between Bor and Juba.
“It is not true. The SPLA forces are currently north of Mongalla,” Aguer said, but disclosed that another fight took place in Rajaf, south of the country’s capital between rebels and forces loyal to government.
SPLA, REBELS CLASH ON JUBA-YEI ROAD
Machar also told Sudan Tribune that the SPLA “badly lost” to his forces on Juba-Yei road, another new front only 12 miles south of Juba, which he said was closing on the capital.
He said the SPLA launched the offensive onto rebel forces along Juba-Yei road, a day after an army general, Marac Akoon, was killed in an earlier fighting on Sunday.
“At least seven SPLA military vehicles were captured or destroyed, 120 AKM rifles captured, leaving remnants of the government’s soldiers to retreat back to Juba,” claimed the rebel leader.
REBELS ORGANISING ASSAULT ON BENTIU
Meanwhile, Machar further said his forces, after “tactical withdrawal” from the Unity state’s capital, Bentiu, were now organizing an assault to recapture the town “soon”.
The former vice-president also revealed that the “forced rebellion” on 15 December was gaining momentum and opening up multiple fronts, saying the military situation would “soon shift against Salva Kiir and his forces.”
Maj. Gen. James Koang Choul, the defected division four commander in Unity state, on Monday also vowed he would “soon” recapture Bentiu allegedly from the joint SPLA and Sudanese rebels of Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).