Juba — South Sudan's rival forces traded accusations on Friday over violations of a cessation hostilities agreement after fighting broke out in Unity state, forcing aid workers and civilians to seek protection at the United Nations base in the capital, Bentiu.
"What happened today (Friday) in Unity state is a total disregard of the cessation hostilities agreement. It is an outright violation of the ceasefire. The rebels of Riek Machar under the general command of Peter Gadet launched an attack on the positions held by our gallant forces in four different locations this morning," presidential spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny exclusively told Sudan Tribune.
He claimed rebels were intending to capture Bentiu to ensure that they were better placed in ongoing peace talks with the South Sudanese government under the mediation of the East African regional bloc (IGAD).
"The SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army) forces eventually repulsed the rebels. This belligerent act, given the level of consistency, shows the rebels do not care about the ceasefire agreement which their leaders have signed," said Ateny.
"It [is] also proving that Riek Machar is actually not in control of the forces he claims to be under him or else he is the one violating the agreement for political pressures and gains in the talks, which is totally unacceptable," he added.
Acting SPLA spokesperson Lt. Col. Joseph Marier Samuel separately confirmed the incident, accusing rebels of launching a dawn attack, prompting government troops to act in self-defence.
"It was [a] coordinated attack, but our forces managed to repulse them with heavy casualties. This is part of a continuous violation of the ceasefire agreement by the rebels. Our forces acted only in self-defence because they were attacked in their positions," he said in a statement issued on Friday.
UN MISSION SHELTERS CIVILIANS
Meanwhile, the UN mission in the country (UNMISS) said it had provided protection and shelter to civilians who fled Bentiu town after fighting broke out.
"During the violence approximately 340 civilians fled from Bentiu and took shelter with UNMISS troops stationed at the airport. UNMISS protected the civilians and then escorted them from the airport to the protection of civilian area in the UNMISS compound outside Bentiu," UNMISS said on Friday.
According to UNMISS, fighting broke out between 6:30am and 9:00am (local time), involving the use of heavy, sustained small arms and artillery fire, which could be heard to the south-east of its base in Bentiu. One artillery shell reportedly exploded next to the UN base without harm.
"I am deeply troubled by this morning's outbreak of violence and condemn it," said Toby Lanzer, the officer in charge of UNMISS, adding that the mission took swift action to protect civilians who sought shelter at the airport and those that continued to arrive at its Bentiu base.
"I call on those responsible for today's (Friday) hostilities to refrain from any further violence and to avoid any action that hinder the protection or assistance provided by UNMISS and aid agencies respectively," the top UN official said.
During its extraordinary summit held in Kenya on Wednesday, regional leaders from IGAD called for the imposition of tougher actions on parties obstructing South Sudan's peace process.