Juba — South Sudan said on Wednesday it plans to shut down the mobile phone network in the border state of Upper Nile, after heavy fighting erupted on Tuesday between rebels and troops loyal to President Salva Kiir.
It was not initially clear whether some communication facilities like mobile phone towers and generators may have been damaged in the fighting, with presidential spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny confirming that the shutdown was for security purposes.
"It was for security purposes. Anywhere in the world governments have the power to do this, if there is insecurity it can shut the network. You cannot leave the network up in a place where there are rebels. You have to cut the network where they are", he said.
Ateny's statement, broadcast on state-owned radio and television networks, confirmed reports from multiples sources from oil-rich Upper Nile that mobile phone service had been cut in the entire state, with the exception of Renk and Paloch.
Speaking at a news conference, Ateny accused rebels of sparking widespread panic among the civilian population, which he said lead to the deaths of more than 200 people, who died trying to flee the fighting after their boat capsized.
"People were drowned because of unnecessary panic caused by the enemies of the state. The town underwent several attacks before they were repulsed, explained Ateny.
Forces loyal to former vice-president-turned rebel leader Riek Machar claimed to have recaptured Malakal, where fighting has been raging since Sunday. The South Sudanese army (SPLA) denies the claims.
Malakal, which produces the bulk of South Sudan's oil, has already changed hands twice since violence erupted in South Sudan's capital, Juba, last month following clashes between rival factions of the presidential guards, with the conflict quickly spilling across other regions.
The latest round of fighting comes as peace talks aimed at ending hostilities continue in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, without result.