August 15, 2014 (JUBA) – South Sudan’s rival forces traded accusations on Friday over violations of a cessation hostilities agreement after fighting broke out in Unity state, forcing aid workers and civilians to seek protection at the United Nations base in the capital, Bentiu.
- Soldiers from the South Sudanese army (SPLA) disembark from a pick-up truck in Unity state capital Bentiu on 12 January 2014 (Photo: Reuters/Andreea Campeanu)
“What happened today (Friday) in Unity state is a total disregard of the cessation hostilities agreement. It is an outright violation of the ceasefire. The rebels of Riek Machar under the general command of Peter Gadet launched an attack on the positions held by our gallant forces in four different locations this morning,” presidential spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny exclusively told Sudan Tribune.
He claimed the rebels intended to capture Bentiu to enhance their position at the ongoing peace talks with government under the mediation of the East African regional bloc (IGAD).
“The SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) forces eventually repulsed the rebels. This belligerent act, given the level of consistency, shows the rebels do not care about the ceasefire agreement which their leaders have signed,” said Ateny.
“It [is] also proving that Riek Machar is actually not in control of the forces he claims to be under him or else he is the one violating the agreement for political pressures and gains in the talks, which is totally unacceptable,” he added.
Acting SPLA spokesperson Lt. Col. Joseph Marier Samuel separately confirmed the incident, accusing rebels of launching a dawn attack, prompting government troops to act in self-defence.
“It was [a] coordinated attack, but our forces managed to repulse them with heavy casualties. This is part of a continuous violation of the ceasefire agreement by the rebels. Our forces acted only in self-defence because they were attacked in their positions,” he said in a statement issued on Friday.
Rebel forces, however, are claiming to be in full control of Bentiu, with the opposition’s spokesman in Unity state, Lt. Col Peter Riek Gew, telling Sudan Tribune by satellite phone that troops were pursuing remnants of the SPLA, which had fled into the bush towards Parieng county.
“We have now captured twin towns of Rubkotna and Bentiu from government [troops],” he said.
Gew said rebels had been forced to respond after continuous shelling by government forces on various rebel strongholds in the state.
He claimed that more than 150 government troops had been killed during the intensive fighting, including a SPLA brigadier general and Mayiandit county commissioner Ruai Gai.
Mayom county MP Peter Dak Khan also told Sudan Tribune that Bentiu had fallen to rebel forces, accusing the SPLA of instigating the fighting.
“It is unfortunate that our brother does not give peace a chance to solve the ongoing conflicts,” he said.
A resident at the UN camp in Rubkotna county who spoke on condition of anonymity said gunshots could be heard to the east of the camp in the direction of Parieng and that rebel forces appeared to be in full control of the capital.
UN MISSION SHELTERS CIVILIANS
Meanwhile, the UN mission in the country (UNMISS) said it had provided protection and shelter to civilians who fled Bentiu town after fighting broke out.
“During the violence approximately 340 civilians fled from Bentiu and took shelter with UNMISS troops stationed at the airport. UNMISS protected the civilians and then escorted them from the airport to the protection of civilian area in the UNMISS compound outside Bentiu,” UNMISS said on Friday.
According to UNMISS, fighting broke out between 6:30am and 9:00am (local time), involving the use of heavy, sustained small arms and artillery fire, which could be heard to the south-east of its base in Bentiu. One artillery shell reportedly exploded next to the UN base without harm.
“I am deeply troubled by this morning’s outbreak of violence and condemn it,” said Toby Lanzer, the officer in charge of UNMISS, adding that the mission took swift action to protect civilians who sought shelter at the airport and those that continued to arrive at its Bentiu base.
“I call on those responsible for today’s (Friday) hostilities to refrain from any further violence and to avoid any action that hinder the protection or assistance provided by UNMISS and aid agencies respectively,” the top UN official said.
During its extraordinary summit held in Kenya on Wednesday, regional leaders from IGAD called for the imposition of tougher actions on parties obstructing South Sudan’s peace process.