10 January 2014

South Sudan Army Says It Has Recaptured Bentiu

Juba — South Sudanese government troops have recaptured the town of Bentiu in oil-producing Unity state, army spokesman Philip Aguer told VOA Friday.

Government troops retook the town at 2:30 p.m. after a two-hour battle with rebel forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, Aguer said.

There was no immediate independent confirmation of the claim.

Aguer said the army's next target will be to recapture the capital of Jonglei state, Bor.

Bentiu and Bor fell to forces loyal to Machar days after South Sudan was plunged into conflict on Dec. 15 when renegade soldiers attacked an army headquarters building in Juba.

President Salva Kiir has said the fighting was an attempted coup led by Machar, but the former vice president has denied the claim.

The two sides in the conflict have sent delegations to Addis Ababa for peace talks, but the negotiations have struggled to get off the ground.

Unity is one of two states in South Sudan that produce oil, the backbone of the country's economy.

Foreign companies, which are vital to South Sudan's oil industry, pulled their workers out of Unity state around a week after the unrest started, citing the deteriorating security situation.

Rebel forces also briefly held the town of Malakal in Upper Nile state, which produces the bulk of South Sudan's oil -- around 85 percent -- but government forces retook the state capital in late December.

Bentiu devastated by fighting

Bentiu has been devastated during nearly one month of violence in South Sudan.

During a visit to the town, United Nations' humanitarian official Toby Lanzer described in a series of Twitter messages Wednesday how the market had been looted and destroyed, and heavily armed men who said they back Machar were the only people seen in the city.

Most civilians had fled the town or sought refuge at the U.N. base in Bentiu as word spread that the government was planning an offensive to retake the Unity state capital.

The United Nations says more than 60,000 are sheltering on U.N. bases throughout the country, including 8,000 in Bentiu.

Some 250,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, and while no official death toll has been released, a top U.N. official said Thursday it is likely to be "very substantially in excess of the figure of 1,000 that we know for sure about."

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