February 11, 2014 (JUBA) - The governor of South Sudan’s Upper Nile has downplayed threats by an armed group allied to the former Vice President Riek Machar, who have threatened to retake the state capital Malakal, should troops loyal to President Salva Kiir continues to launch attacks on their positions.
- Simon Kun Puoch, the Governor of Upper Nile State (Photo Boboya Simon Wudu)
"The security situation is calm. Civilians have already returned to Malakal town, which is now under complete control of our forces. All these utterances in the media are just propaganda statements”, Simon Kun Puoc, governor of Upper Nile state told Sudan Tribune on Tuesday.
The United Nations estimates that over 137,000 people have been displaced by the fighting Upper Nile state, which borders both Sudan and Ethiopia.
Governor Puoc was reacting to reports that the rebels repulsed from the town by the government troops in January had regrouped and were advancing towards Malakal town from three different directions.
However, an official in Puoc’s administration told Sudan Tribune on Tuesday: "What the governor said does not reflect on the realities on the ground. He just wanted to avoid fear and panics but the reality on the ground is that there was a fighting today in Owaci, which is not far from Malakal town."
The official, who did not want to be identified, said heavily armed men allied to the former Vice President have been sighted moving in columns from Ulang and Nasir towards Bailiet.
“The information we have is that the rebels are advancing to Malakal. They have reached Canal already and Obel, which is only 25 minutes driving. They overran Owaci this morning on the east and west bank of the Nile respectively, which is dangerous to Malakal”, he explained.
The government official claimed the intention of the rebel group was to attack Malakal so that they divert the government’s attention as their real intention is to try and control the oil fields in Adar and Paloch.
“The group coming from Nasir and Ulang counties will be joined by Lou Nuer youth coming from Jonglei. They will stage joined attack on Malakal town, take it and then leave a small force to engage the government troops and the rest go to the oil fields in Adar and Paloch. They will be joined by those in Wadokona, which is located at the border with Sudan”, he explained.
Sudan Tribune was not able to independently verify the claims and attempts to reach the spokesperson of the government troops, Colonel Philip Aguer, failed repeatedly.
The government and rebels are due to resume peace talks in Addis Ababa on Wednesday to bring a end to the conflict that began after a split in ruling party and army triggered fighting the capital Juba that spread to Jonglei and the oil-producing states of Unity and Upper Nile.
A ceasefire deal signed on January 23 has proven to be shaky with both sides accusing the other of violating it. South Sudan relies on oil revenues for over 90% of its income but has to export its crude through Sudan to the north, from which it separated in 2011.
The presence of Ugandan soldiers fighting alongside the South Sudanese army is believed to have alarmed the Sudanese government. The United State and Ethiopia have both asked Kampala to remove their forces for the sake of the peace process - Machar’s rebels insist that the leave - and to prevent South Sudan’s conflict turning into a proxy war.