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South Sudan army moves on rebel-held positions in Upper Nile despite ceasefire

September 7, 2015 (JUBA) – South Sudan’s government has hired war-planes from the government of neighbouring Uganda and have continued to bomb rebel held positions, defending the action as a move to regain territories from the rebels and push them farther in order to secure airport in the oil-rich Upper Nile state’s capital, Malakal.

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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)

A senior official of the government said the air strikes and ground attacks against positions of the rebels was to secure the route government hired planes take when landing in Malakal, saying this was to minimize danger to planes passing over rebel-held territories.

“Fighting jets conducted air strikes on the rebel positions west of Malakal airport on Sunday and again Monday. The rebels are occupying the west bank on the other side of the Nile River. The landing aircrafts pass over these places which are occupied by the rebels. To secure the landing of these aircrafts, you must be sure of the safety of the aircrafts, crew members and the passengers,” a national cabinet minister told Sudan Tribune under the cover of anonymity on Monday.

The official who defended the activities of the government forces claimed opposition forces were hostile to aircrafts passing over the areas under their territories to land at the airport in town, saying in June, two months ago, the rebels shot at UNMISS aircraft carrying supplies, mistaking it to be government’s hired plane that carried troops to the frontline.

“Last time they shot even at UNMISS plane which has no government officials. From the information we obtained during the clearance, the UNMISs told us it was to be used for normal supplies of non-military items. It was the forces of Johnson Olony and the rebels of Riek Machar which carried out this attack in June. This is the mistake which cannot be allowed to repeat itself if there is a way to do that,” he said in defense of the attacks on rebels.

The attacks on positions held by the armed opposition forces on the west bank of the River Nile with helicopter gunships launched from Malakal airport have allegedly caused damage to the runway and delayed the use of the airport by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) in ferrying supplies, officials and residents said on Monday.

In Juba, South Sudan has also directed UNMISS not to be using Juba airport in the evening hours, allegedly to allow helicopters to do some exercise, but officials close to the decision making said this was to conceal the movement of attack helicopters from Juba to Malakal in the evening hours.

Multiple residents and eyewitnesses of Malakal town told Sudan Tribune on Monday during a series of interviews that the air attacks were carried out as part of preparations to facilitate the movement of the government forces to cross the Nile River using gunboats with amphibian tanks and other heavy weapons. This is to attack the opposition held territories in the west bank of the Nile despite government claims of commitment to full implementation of the ceasefire, they claimed.

Officials in Malakal said citizens have confused because the national government in Juba continued to launch attacks against the rebels while at the same time senior officials speak publicly of respect to ceasefire and implementation of the peace agreement.

“People are confused as to what is happening. The national government in Juba is talking about ceasefire and commitment to the full implementation of the peace agreement which the president has signed with the rebels to end the conflict, yet the area has been witnessing military confrontations,” a state government official told Sudan Tribune from Malakal town.

The government forces on Thursday and Friday last week , according to the source and confirmed by multiple military sources, crossed the Nile River to the west bank of Malakal airport on the side of the river in violation of the ceasefire. They are presently occupying two strategic positions in Alelo and Ditang previously held by the opposition forces before the ceasefire was declared on 29 August.

The objective of crossing to the other side of the river, sources say, is to secure the airport for airplanes landing in town with returning senior government officials from Juba and elsewhere in the state.

Colonel Philip Aguer, spokesperson of the South Sudan army (SPLA), said he was not aware of the development and called on the United States and the United Nations to fill the gap created by lack of monitoring mechanisms.

The military officer cited a statement issued by the chief of general staff of the government forces, Paul Malong Awan, as evidence of the commitment of the government forces to observe ceasefire.

“The statement issued by the chief of general staff calling on the United States and the United Nations to fill the gap created by lack of monitoring mechanism shows the commitment of the army command. The essence of the statement is that if there is any independent body to monitor the ceasefire the army is ready and welcoming anybody that will fill the gap to assure the transparency in the implementation of the ceasefire. On our side, we have complied,” Aguer told reporters on Monday.

However, early this week, Aguer appeared on South Sudan TV (SSTV), saying that government attack helicopters will escort war barges that cross rebel controlled territories in Unity and Jonglei states in their movement to Upper Nile state.

The accusation of attack of the government forces on rebel positions came a day after president Salva Kiir admitted that his forces had been violating the ceasefire and warned of punitive measures against any military officer who would not comply with his orders instructing the army’s chief of general staff to observe the ceasefire.

President Kiir’s comments hinted a division within his government over the peace agreement as some senior political and military officials have defied his orders while the president seems to be reluctant to act to discipline the officers he did not mention by name.

MONDAY ATTACKS

South Sudan’s armed opposition led by former vice president, Machar, said government forces in the fifth consecutive days had attacked their base on Monday morning in violation of the ceasefire.

“Today around 11:00 am, the government forces launched counter military assaults on our position in Warjuok in Upper Nile state. The heavy shelling started this morning followed by a raid from infantry forces from the SPLA/Juba faction on our bases,” partly reads a statement issued on Monday by the rebels military spokesman, Colonel William Gatjiath Deng.

“This move came after the two Ugandan helicopters gunships used by South Sudan government had dropped random explosives and chemicals on our positions in Panyinkang, Tunja and Nyijuat Payam at 12pm yesterday. Today, the infantry forces were sent to dislodge our forces in the said mentioned areas,” he added.

He said the ceasefire violations demonstrated lack of commitment to peace by the government.

(ST)