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Rebels were aided by foreign mercenaries in Unity state capital, says South Sudan army

April 16, 2014 (JUBA) – The South Sudanese army (SPLA) says it is preparing to launch a major offensive to retake Bentiu, the capital of the oil producing Unity state, calling on foreign mercenaries supporting rebel forces in the area to immediately withdraw.

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Soldiers from the South Sudanese army (SPLA) celebrate after recapturing Unity state capital Bentiu from rebel forces in January (Photo: Reuters)

The comments came following official confirmation that rebel fighters allied to former vice-president turned rebel leader Riek Machar had seized control of the strategic town close to the Sudanese border.

“This is a temporary victory and should not be celebrated that much by rebels. We will take it,” SPLA spokesperson Colonel Philip Aguer told reporters on Wednesday, adding that government forces remained in the area.

Aguer claims that rebels entered the town on Monday with the help of foreign mercenaries, believed to be Janjaweed, the feared Arab militias active in Darfur and western Sudan.

“They (rebels) entered the town with help of some foreign mercenaries, but it is a matter of time before these mercenaries regret allying with these rebels,” he said.

In a later press statement, Aguer called on foreign mercenaries to withdraw from the town within the next 72 hours.

Multiple government officials have accused the government of neighbouring Sudan of aiding the rebels with military hardware and air cover.

“We know very well that rebels did not have any capacity to take Bentiu; otherwise they would not have fled when the SPLA forces captured it from them in January,” said Daniel Jok, a member of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) from the oil-contested region of Abyei.

“What happened is an indication that there is [a] foreign hand in this attack. There is no question that they (rebels) came from Sudan, because this is where they fled and we have been receiving reports of [the] training [of] recruits there,” he added.

In the first public account of the events which led up to the town’s recapture, Jok said Sudanese fighter jets made multiple, close-range passes in South Sudanese air space on Saturday amid escalating tensions in the region.

“This provocative military action goes against international protocols and previous agreements,” Jok told Sudan Tribune on Wednesday.

REBELS DENY SUDAN SUPPORT

South Sudanese rebels, meanwhile, have denied allegations they received support from neighbouring Sudan.

“We don’t receive support from any country, including Sudan. It is Juba and Khartoum that have cooperation agreements, including on the security arrangements at the border,” said Machar’s spokesperson, James Gatdet Dak.

“Salva Kiir visited Khartoum last week and met with president Bashir to follow up on the implementation of the cooperation agreements. So how come they now turn around to allege that we get support from the very Sudan?” he added.

The Sudanese army (SAF) also issued a statement this week denying pro-Machar rebels were receiving training at camps inside Sudan, disissing the allagations as an attempt to destabilise relations between the two countries.

SAF spokesperson Al-Sawarmi Khalid Saad said Sudan remain a neutral position on the conflict and had no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of South Sudan.

Saad was responding to comments attributed to Aguer in the Londan-based Asharq Alawsat newspaper on Tuesday, in which the latter said the rebel troops that attacked Bentiu this week were trained inside Sudan.

“What we know now is that Machar forces received training inside Sudanese territory and under the supervision of the government army,” Aguer told Asharq Alawsat.

“What we know now is that Machar forces received training inside Sudanese territory and under the supervision of the government army,” he said.

In a statement issued following the town’s recapture, the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition called on oil companies operating in government-controlled areas to cease oil production and evacuate all staff within a week.

Rebel military spokesperson Brig. Gen. Lul Ruai Koang said oil companies that fail to comply are risking the safety of their staff and may face a forced shutdown of production.

Unity state has changed hands several times since political tensions erupted in violence in the capital, Juba, in mid-December.

(ST)