AFP – South Sudan’s army said Wednesday that it had lost contact with its troops in the key oil hub of Malakal following a major offensive by rebels.
The rebels have said they now control the northeastern town of Malakal after launching an assault on Tuesday, throwing into doubt a ceasefire agreement that was signed in Ethiopia last month.
“I have no contact with the command in Malakal,” army spokesman Philip Aguer told AFP.
According to aid sources, Malakal’s airport was closed on Tuesday evening and rebels were inside the town — although it was unclear if they had total control over Malakal, a dusty settlement on the banks of the White Nile.
Rebel military spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said opposition fighters were “chasing” government soldiers into bush, and insisted that it was government soldiers who attacked first and violated the truce.
The United Nations meanwhile said that 10 people had been killed in “inter-communal clashes” within an UNMISS peacekeeping base in Malakal, where more than 20,000 people have been sheltering from the fighting.
The conflict in South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation which won independence from Khartoum less than three years ago, erupted in the capital Juba on 15 December but quickly spread across the country.
The fighting around Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state, appears to have been the heaviest to take place since the government of President Salva Kiir and rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar signed a ceasefire agreement in neighbouring Ethiopia on 23 January.
The unrest in South Sudan has left thousands of people dead and displaced close to 900,000, including tens of thousands who have crammed into UNMISS bases in fear of ethnic attacks by either Kiir’s Dinka tribe or Machar’s Nuer tribe.