22 December 2013

South Sudan Army Loses Control of Unity State Capital As Refugees Flee Fighting

Photo: Charlton Doki/IPS
Oil storage facilities at Bentiu, Unity State.

South Sudan's army has admitted to losing control of the capital of the country's oil-rich Unity State to the armed opposition. More than 60,000 people have fled their homes to escape the spreading unrest.

Forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar have taken control of Bentiu, capital of Unity State, the oil-producing region of the country, South Sudan's military spokesman Colonel Philip Aguer announced on Sunday.

"Bentiu is in the hands of a commander who has declared support for Machar," Aguer said. "Bentiu is not in our hands."

South Sudan gets nearly 99 percent of its government budget from oil revenues, and the country reportedly earned $1.3 billion (950 million euros) in oil sales in just five months this year, according to the London-based watchdog group Global Witness.

UN measures

The UN Mission in South Sudan said in a statement Sunday that all non-critical staff in the capital Juba were being evacuated to Uganda.

It added that more than 60,000 people have fled their homes since fighting began a week ago. The mission said the move was "a precautionary measure to reduce pressures on its limited resources" as it continues to provide assistance and shelter to more than 20,000 civilians gathered inside its compounds in Juba.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an end to the fighting. He also said the UN planned to send resources from other peacekeeping missions in the region to South Sudan.

"We are now actively trying to transfer our assets from other peacekeeping missions like United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ... and some other areas," he said.

Civil war risk

Forces loyal to Machar were also reported to be still in control of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state and situated about 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Juba. South Sudan's army spokesman said government troops were advancing to retake the town.

"The SPLA is still moving towards Bor but have not yet captured Bor," Sudan People's Liberation Army spokesman Philip Aguer told AFP on Sunday.

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, said on Monday that an attempted military coup had set off the fighting, placing the blame on former Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer. But media reports have since cited a dispute between Dinka and Nuer members of the presidential guard which triggered fighting that later spread across the two-year old, East African country.

Machar's ouster from the vice-presidency in July had already increased ethnic tensions. Machar, who had criticized Kiir as a dictator, later said he would contest presidential elections in 2015.

jm/ccp (AP, Reuters)

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