Nairobi — The three-week old rebels in South Sudan said they were advancing on the capital, Juba, as fighting between rival politicians intensifies further.
The fighting erupted on 15 December when presidential guard units clashed. The former minister of higher education, Peter Adwok Nyaba, said the violence started when elements from the presidential guards of Dinka ethnic group attempted to re-arm after they were disarmed together with their Nuer colleagues, prompting suspicions and misunderstandings.
Others also speculated that the Dinka elements were planning to arrest former vice president, Riek Machar after disarming their counterparts from the Nuer ethnic group to which Machar belongs.
The fighting then pitted the Dinka loyal to President Salva Kiir and the Nuer loyal to Machar and spread further on tribal lines when civilians were first targeted in Juba based on their ethnicity.
The violence also spread to the other parts of the country with the rebels now controlling much of the oil-rich northern parts of the young nation.
After recapturing the strategic town of Bor, the capital of the largest state in the country, which is about 200kms from Juba, Machar on Friday told the Sudan Tribune by phone that his forces were matching toward Juba and will capture it soon.
"Today our forces crushed the amassed government soldiers at their stronghold in Jameza on Juba road. Our troops broke their stronghold and are pursuing them as they flee back to Juba. Juba will fall soon," he confidently warned.
The news about the rebels advance toward Juba caused a lot of panic in the capital.
The United States on Friday ordered its embassy personnel in South Sudan to leave the country in the wake of the deteriorating security situation.
"On January 3, 2014, there will be an evacuation flight arranged by the Department of State to the nearest safe haven country," partly read an emergency statement issued.
ARMY DENIES REBEL CLAIMS
However, the government army's (SPLA) spokesperson, Philip Aguer, said the government's forces were instead moving to recapture Bor from the rebels.
"We have enough forces to recapture Bor... We will take it in the next 24 hours," he said.
Aguer, however, warned the media not to broadcast news about the rebels advance, saying this would cause panic among the populations in the capital.
But other government sources quietly admitted to Sudan Tribune that the rebels were truly advancing, adding that it was not, however, in the interest of the government to tell the truth about the military situation.
"Of course today on Juba-Bor road they have crushed the forces we mobilized to retake Bor. It was a disaster. But we will deploy again," said the source that preferred anonymity.
He further explained that they lost several tanks and artillery weapons. He also said the government's forces lost some senior military officers, which he did not want to name, when they fell into an ambush laid by the rebels.
The retreating troops combined with "Ugandan forces", he revealed, were under the command of the deputy chief of staff of operations, lieutenant general Malual Ayom, adding that the chief of general staff, Gen James Hoth Mai, was preparing to personally command the next battles against the rebels advance toward Juba.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) on Friday also confirmed that the fighting was going on towards Juba.
Col. Mike Chadrick of UNMISS in Bor told the BBC he independently verified that two armed groups were fighting about 40 miles away on Juba-Bor road.
The situation was calm in Bor town, he said, which remains under the control of pro-Machar forces.
A rebel commander, Bridagier General Khor Chol, who took part in the Friday engagement, also said the government soldiers were retreating back to Juba and will not be able to stop them from advancing in to Juba.
"We are currently pursuing pro-Salva Kiir soldiers. We are surely matching and will enter Juba soon," he said.
He added the government was not telling the truth to the citizens about "what is actually taking place on the ground in the battle fields", adding that government spokespersons employed "propaganda of lies with the aim to deceive the public."
He described Aguer's claim of trying to attack Bentiu in Unity state as a "mere propaganda" and a desperate attempt to raise the morale of the "demoralised" government troops.
Khor cautioned the residents of Juba to stay indoors or seek refuge with UNMISS as the rebels would storm the capital "any time soon."
CEASEFIRE TALKS ON
Meanwhile, the two parties are set to start a face-to-face negotiation of a ceasefire on Saturday in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
Machar's group has demanded the release of their colleagues detained in Juba in order to agree on a ceasefire.
They also want them flown to Addis Ababa to take part in the negotiations.
The rebel further want the government to denounce that there was no alleged coup attempt as one of the pre-conditions for a ceasefire.