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Rebels claim S. Sudan army pushed out of Bentiu, Nasir

May 5, 2014 (KAMPALA) – South Sudanese rebels claimed on Monday to have regained control of both Nasir in Upper Nile state and Unity state capital Bentiu, which government troops say they captured on Sunday.

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The United Nations MIssion in South Sudan evacuates civilians in Unity state capital Bentiu after the town was recaptured by rebels form government troops in April (Photo: UNMISS)

Rebel commander Maj. Gen. James Koang Chuol says their forces have flushed out Sudanese rebels from Unity state capital Bentiu who its claimed are fighting alongside the South Sudanese army (SPLA), saying both government troops and their allies had suffered a heavy defeat.

“The Sudanese rebels who are blindfolded by [the] Juba government have suffered heavy losses. We capture[d] heavy ammunitions and other light guns,” Chuol told Sudan Tribune by satellite phone, saying rebels had also pushed out the SPLA from Mayom county to neighbouring Warrap state.

However, military spokesperson Col. Philip Aguer told Sudan Tribune in Juba that the government army remains in control of Bentiu and had “repulsed two [rebel] attacks in the last 24 hours”.

Chuol said attacks on rebel positions in Nasir and Bentiu on Sunday constituted a violation of the ceasefire agreement signed by the two warring parties in January.

Chuol says the leadership of the SPLM/A in Opposition remains committed to ongoing peace talks in Ethiopia, but said the government had shown a lack of interest in reaching a peaceful solution to the crisis.

He also warned Sudanese rebels against interfering in South Sudan’s affairs.

A source at the UN camp in Rubkotna county told Sudan Tribune described Monday’s fighting as among the heaviest the region has witnessed and had left many government soldiers dead in Bentiu and Rubkotna.

He claims he witnessed some government soldiers entering UN camp after surrendering their weapons to peace keeping forces.

The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) says at least 200 people were killed on the basis of their nationality or ethnicity when rebels recaptured Bentiu from the army last month, with the incident attracting international condemnation and warning the country was facing a possible genocide.

The South Sudanese army (SPLA) on Monday pledged to protect civilians in areas it recaptured from rebels over the weekend to avoid a repeat of what transpired the last time the town changed hands.

“[It] is a people’s army and will remain accountable to the people of South Sudan,” Aguer said.

“We have rules and code of conduct that protect civilians during the war. And any violation to that is punishable,” he added.

Both sides have been accused of committing atrocities since political tensions between South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, and former vice-president Riek Machar turned violent, igniting tribal tensions across the country.

However, Aguer told Sudan Tribune that government forces would protect civilians in Bentiu and Nasir “irrespective of their tribal affiliation”.

During the initial phase of the conflict, civilians the capital, Juba, were targeted on the basis that they were from Machar’s Nuer tribe after Kiir accused his former deputy of attempting to stage a coup.

Aguer said the SPLA “acknowledges [that] some mistakes happened in December but the army ordered for investigations”. About 100 members of the security services have reportedly been arrested in connection with the killings.

“The army is ready for investigations, is ready to arrest whoever is seen committing any violation against civilians,” he said. However, Aguer admits that five of the suspects managed to escape during fresh fighting at Gieda military barracks in Juba, which erupted on 5 March.

“We have their (soldiers who fled jail) names and identities. They will be recaptured and brought to books,” he added.

The conflict has split the SPLA and the country’s ruling party (SPLM), with peace talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to try and negotiate a political settlement to the crisis, which could see a transitional government in place, so far failing to make headway.

Meanwhile, an aid worker in Unity state’s Yida refugee camp told Sudan Tribune on condition of anonymity that Sudanese rebel forces from the SPLA-N and JEM dislodged from the Nuba Mountains by a recent offensive launched by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) had begun amassing in the refugee camp and Jau areas.

He said the Sudanese rebels are worn out from the war in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states and are seeking to cross to the Bahr el Gazal region to escape attacks by the Sudanese army.