April 15, 2014 (JUBA) – A South Sudanese government official has officially admitted that rebel forces are “in control” of Bentiu, the strategic oil-rich capital of Unity state.
- South Sudan’s rebel leader, Riek Machar, gestures as he talks to his men in Jonglei state on 31 January 2014 (Reuters: Goran Tomasevic)
“They (rebels) are inside Bentiu now. It is under their complete control,” Unity state’s deputy governor, Stephen Mabek Lang, told reporters on Tuesday.
The official, who is in close contact with government troops on the ground, said the army pulled out after a commanding officer allegedly withdrew without notifying his forces.
“This unfortunate development discouraged reinforcement from other areas,” Lang told a group of government officials who had come to pick him up from Juba airport.
Military sources claimed fighters under the command of Maj. Gen. Puljang Mathews withdrew from Rubkona on Tuesday without their knowledge, making it possible for rebel forces to quickly penetrate parts of the town without facing any armed resistance.
It is still unclear whether the commanding officer remained in the town fighting alongside government troops or had withdrawn.
Gordon Buay, spokesperson of the former rebel faction to which Mathews belonged prior to accepting a presidential amnesty and joining government-allied forces, clarified that the latter had remained in Bentiu and did not defect.
According to Buay, forces in Bentiu had been caught out after ammunitions supplies from Bilpam were not delivered in time.
However, the spokesperson for South Sudan’s army (SPLA), Philip Aguer, said fighting was continuing in Bentiu, despite rebels and some government officials confirming the town’s recapture.
“The information we have from our forces on the ground is that fighting is still continuing. The rebels have attempted to penetrate the town through one part of the town but they are being pushed away,” Phillip Aguer told reporters on Tuesday.
“Our forces are still inside the town fighting,” he added, revising his earlier remarks that the SPLA had repulsed rebel attempts to enter Bentiu town on Monday and take control.
Government forces have recaptured several rebel-held areas and border towns in recent months, closing off supply routes from neighbouring countries and securing the main artery leading west from Wau town, in Western Bahr el Ghazal, via Mayom county to Bentiu.