Juba — Rebel forces led by South Sudan's former president, Riek Machar, say they are now in full control of Malakal, the capital of oil-rich Upper Nile state, following fierce battles on Tuesday morning with government troops and their foreign allies.
Rebel military spokesperson Brig Lul Ruai Koang told Sudan Tribune on Tuesday that forces loyal to president Salva Kiir were flushed out from Malakal town and were being pursued towards Akok county.
This would be the third time, if true, that Malakal, a strategic town located about 497km from the South Sudan capital, Juba, had fallen to rebel forces since conflict broke out in the country two months ago.
Koang accused the government and its allies of provoking the rebels prior to the recapture of the state capital.
"The government troops and its allies today (Tuesday) in the morning launched unprovoked, simultaneous attacks on our defensive positions, 7km south and 5km east of Malakal town. The attacking forces were repulsed, pursued and flushed out of their last stronghold north of Malakal town," said Koang.
He also accused neighbouring Uganda of military involvement in the battles, saying its jet fighters had dropped several bombs on rebel positions around Malakal.
"While close combat engagements were ongoing, Kiir's troops received massive air support from Uganda warplanes. Our gallant forces under the direct command of Maj. Gen. Chayuot Manyang and under the overall command of Maj. Gen. Gathoth Gatkuoth are still chasing the remnants of government troops towards Akoka county," Koang said.
He added that rebels were yet to ascertain the number of casualties on the ground from both sides.
ARMY DISMISSES REBEL CLAIMS
The spokesperson for the South Sudan army (SPLA), Phillip Aguer, has dismissed the rebel claims as "untrue", adding that fighting was still ongoing in the strategic town.
"The rebels of Riek Machar have not captured Malakal. It is not under their control, although a few managed to penetrate into the town from the south, north and east," Aguer told Sudan Tribune by phone on Wednesday.
"Our forces remain in control of strategic areas in the southern parts of Malakal, and it is just a matter of time before our forces declare complete control of the town," he added.
South Sudan government spokesperson Michael Makuei Lueth also denied the claims, instead accusing the rebel SPLM/A In Opposition forces of violating the ceasefire agreement signed in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on 23 January.
"I don't think the rebels control Malakal. In any case, we would have flushed them out long ago if we never respected the ceasefire agreement," he told reporters on Tuesday.
However, residents and government sources in the area claim rebels took complete control of the town on Tuesday evening, forcing the civilian population to flee to a UN base camp.
"The rebels are in full control of the town as of now. It seems the government forces withdrew to the south. The fact that the SPLA forces are not in the key areas and installations, like Airport, hospitals, river port and the military headquarters indicates that they may have pulled out," a senior government official told Sudan Tribune Wednesday.
Another source within the state government said that rebel forces appeared to have acquired improved weaponry, revealing that for the first time they posed direct threats to the tanks used by the government troops, many of which were destroyed in the battles.
Meanwhile, the rebels have reiterated accusations directed towards the Ugandan army (UPDF), alleging that the "negative role" played by the latter in the internal South Sudanese conflict was a major factor in Kiir's decision to resist political reforms within the country's ruling party (SPLM).
Ugandan officials have maintained that they are footing the bill for the country's military deployment in South Sudan, arguing that they are there to prevent internal fighting escalating again, as well as protecting their national security interests by ensuring the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) does not resurface in South Sudan.
10 DEAD AT UN CAMP
The UN mission in the country (UNMISS) has confirmed that at least 10 people were killed on Tuesday when inter-communal violence broke out within a UN camp designated to protect civilians in Malakal.
"From this (Tuesday) morning there has been heavy fighting in and around Malakal between the SPLA In Opposition and the government forces. Simultaneously, inter-communal clashes flared up within the protection of civilians site within the UNMISS compound, which also came under cross fire," a statement issued by the mission said in part.
UNMISS said the incident was contained by it troops and police units, although its statement steopped short of mentioning which tribes were involved in the fight.
However, sources familiar with the incident told Sudan Tribune that the clashes within the UN premises pitted the Dinka and Shilluk tribes against members of the Nuer ethnic group.
Although the cause of the inter-communal skirmishes remains unclear, witnesses claimed that fighting erupted after Nuer youth reportedly became angry after Shilluk and Dinka tribe members in the area refused to join the rebellion in support of Machar.
US EMBASSY CONDEMNS ATTACK
Meanwhile, the United States embassy in Juba has condemned the Malakal clashes, describing it as a blatant disregard of the cessation of hostilities agreement signed by both sides/
"The fighting in Malakal endangers the lives of civilians and threatens further instability in Upper Nile State," it said in a statement issued on Tuesday.
"Armed conflict and violence will not solve this crisis," it added.
The statement also called on both sides to immediately abide by the terms of the ceasefire agreement and engage in serious negotiations at ongoing peace talks in Addis Ababa.
"It is of paramount importance for the government to name and send immediately its representatives to the joint technical committee so that the Monitoring and Verification Teams can begin their work of monitoring the agreement under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)," the embassy stressed.
"Continued military conflict will only prolong the violence and worsen the humanitarian crisis that threatens to consume the country," the statement adds.