South Sudanese government forces have retaken the city of Bentiu, capital of oil-rich Unity state. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on President Salva Kiir to release political prisoners.
South Sudan military spokesman Philip Aguer said that rebel forces loyal to Riek Machar had "destroyed" Bentiu before withdrawing on Friday. The local bank had been looted, food was stolen, and the market was set on fire, according to Aguer.
Doctors without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF, said that its office in Bentiu had also been looted.
"It is unacceptable that one of the only humanitarian organizations still providing assistance to the population in Bentiu has been looted," MSF General Director Arjan Hehenkamp said.
Aguer said that South Sudan government forces had recaptured Bentiu after two hours of fighting on Friday, capturing 10 tanks and other vehicles in the process.
South Sudan's rebels without a cause?
The fighting in South Sudan has already left over 1,000 people dead and displaced thousands. What the rebels hope to attain still remains unclear - perhaps even to the rebels themselves, some observers say.
Rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang characterized the lost battle as a "tactical withdrawal to avoid casualties."
UN chief demands prisoner release
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on President Kiir to release 11 political prisoners allied with rebel leader Machar. The group of prisoners was arrested in December for allegedly attempting to launch a coup against Kiir.
"I called President Salvia Kiir yesterday again and urged him to demonstrate leadership and political flexibility by immediately releasing political prisoners," Ban told reporters on Friday. "This crisis can be resolved only at the negotiating table, and I urge the two sides to negotiate in earnest."
Machar has made the prisoners' release a pre-condition for continued peace talks in Addis Ababa that could lead to a cease-fire. But the UN Security Council has called on Machar to accept a cease-fire "without precondition."
Speculation about US sanctions
According to a report by the Reuters news agency, the Obama administration may be considering targeted sanctions against South Sudan. Citing unnamed sources, Reuters reported that Washington may target individuals who are blocking the peace process, avoiding broader sanctions that would disrupt Juba's already weak economy. The US played an instrumental role in South Sudan winning independence from Sudan in 2011
Fighting broke out in South Sudan in December. President Kiir accuses Machar of trying to launch a coup against his government. But the conflict has taken on an ethnic dimension, with bloody reprisals between the Dinka and Nuer communities. Kiir is a Dinka and Machar is a Nuer.
The UN has reported 1,000 deaths since the fighting began. But South Sudan analyst Casie Copeland with the International Crisis Group says that the death toll could be as high as 10,000.
An estimated 75,000 people have crowded into UN compounds, according to Secretary-General Ban. The UN refugee agency reports that at least 232,000 people have fled their homes inside the country, while another 43,000 have sought refuge abroad.
slk/jm (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)