March 19, 2014 (JUBA) – The South Sudanese army (SPLA) announced Wednesday that it had recaptured Malakal town, the capital of oil-rich Upper Nile state, one month after it had fallen into rebel hands on 18 February.
- Soldiers from the South Sudan army (SPLA) patrol the streets in the Upper Nile state capital, Malakal, on 21 January 2014 (Photo: AFP/Charles Lomodong)
The fighting erupted after rebel forces apparently attempted to expand their positions outside the capital.
“The rebels of [former vice-president] Riek Machar moved out of Malakal town and attacked the positions of our forces in Makal Shilluk, pushing them (government soldiers) to respond in self-defence during which they managed to push [the rebels] back to Malakal town, which they eventually deserted,” SPLA spokesperson Colonel Philip Aguer, spokesperson told Sudan Tribune on Wednesday.
He said that the army took the full control of the town about 4.30pm (local time), adding that SPLA troops are pursuing the rebel forces beyond Anakiar and eastern parts of Malakal “where they fled in disarray”.
Aguer said the army had also repulsed another rebel attack in Guel Guk, west of the Adar oil field.
Machar’s spokesperson, James Gatdet Dak, has also confirmed that government troops are in control of the town, saying rebel forces had temporarily pulled back from Malakal.
“Yes, our forces have withdrawn from Malakal for tactical reasons. We will, however, retake the town soon. Our resistance forces are only a few kilometres outside Malakal,” he told Sudan Tribune on Wednesday.
Upper Nile State minister of information Philip Jiben Ogal confirmed the military takeover of Malakal from rebel forces, which comes just 24 hours before the resumption of peace talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, saying the news had been welcomed by the civilian population.
“This is not simply a military victory, but a big relief to the civil population, especially our people who have been under trees and in the open space in many places. You can now hear people of Bailiet dancing,” Ogal told Sudan Tribune, amid noisy background celebrations.
Gordon Buay, spokesperson for former rebel groups now allied to the government in Juba, said he had spoken to the overall operational commander of SPLA forces in the area after Malakal was retaken.
“Our gallant forces, SPLA, have captured Malakal today (Wednesday). The rebels are on the run. I congratulate Lt. General Johnson Gony Biliew,” said Buay.
Meanwhile in Juba, news broadcasts on South Sudan’s radio and television networks led with the recapture of Malakal town by government troops.
The army spokesperson told Sudan Tribune that further details on the situation in Malakal would be made available on Thursday.
“Our forces are still pursuing the rebels, so we do not have full details now, but shall make them available tomorrow when [we] shall have gathered full details,” said Aguer.
UN CONFIRMS CLASHES
In a statement from New York, UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq said the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) had reported fighting in Malakal between the SPLA and rebel forces in the vicinity of its compound Wednesday afternoon (local time).
“Two rounds of mortar fire also landed close to the mission compound, where some 22,000 displaced civilians are under the UN’s protection,” he said.
He also said that heavy shelling had been reported in areas between Malakal town and the mission’s premises, with UNMISS forces also witnessing troop and tank movements towards the town earlier on Wednesday.
Haq said the warring parties had also clashed on Tuesday in Akoka, located north of Malakal.
He concluded his statement by calling on the two sides to fully comply with a cessation of hostilities agreement signed on 23 January, and to ensure a swift establishment of the monitoring and verification mechanism.
Malakal has been the scene of heavy fighting in recent months, changing hands several times since political tensions erupted in violence in Juba in mid-December before spreading to other parts of the country.
There have been increasing reports of atrocities to emerge from the northern town.
Last month, Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) said it appeared patients had been shot dead in their beds after healthcare facilities were targeted in attacks.
On a visit to the capital last month the UN’s top humanitarian official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, also spoke of his shock at the scale of destruction in the town and seeing corpses left to rot in the streets.
The conflict in South Sudan has pitted troops loyal to the central government and rebel forces aligned with Machar, who was removed as vice-president in July last year.
The ceasefire deal negotiated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has failed to stem violence on the ground, with both sides accusing each other of violating the terms of the agreement.