Rebels Press Attack on Key City in South Sudan
TEHRAN (Tasnim) – Rebel forces attacked South Sudanese city of Bor appeared on Wednesday to have driven government forces out of parts of the city, a strategic location seen as a gateway to Juba, the capital, after a day of fierce fighting.
“Yesterday our forces did a partial withdrawal from the town but they are still fighting in the suburbs of Bor,” Col. Philip Aguer, a South Sudanese military spokesman, said on Wednesday.
The mayor of Bor, Nhial Majak Nhial, said by telephone, “The government is in control of the southern parts of the city,” and added that many residents had fled after rebel forces killed civilians.
As the fighting raged, talks to end the conflict were expected to convene on Wednesday in Ethiopia.
South Sudan’s foreign minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, told Reuters that the government would take part. “We are going there,” the agency quoted him as saying on Tuesday. As for the rebels, the BBC reported that their leader, Riek Machar, said he would join the talks.
Leaders of several East African nations have been pressing Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, and Mr. Machar, the former vice president, to halt the conflict, and at least one leader threatened to intervene if the two sides did not begin peace talks by Tuesday.
It was not clear how countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda would respond to the fighting in Bor. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda called on Monday for nations in the region to “defeat” the rebel forces if they did not agree to a cease-fire.
A spokesman for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan said on Tuesday that the rebels had captured an airstrip on the outskirts of Bor and a key crossroads leading to Juba.
“Our people were hearing tank fire, rockets and small-arms fire,” said Joseph Contreras, the spokesman.
“The latest reports that I have are that the antigovernment forces are in control of the area on the southeastern outskirts where our facility is located,” he said, referring to a United Nations compound there.
The rebels controlled the city early in the revolt, but were dislodged last week. They returned in stronger numbers, with renegade military units backed by the armed youth known as the White Army.
For several days, groups including the United Nations warned that large numbers of fighters were advancing toward Bor, the capital of Jonglei State.
Thousands of civilians have left the United Nations compound in Bor, some bound for Juba and others crossing a river into a neighboring state. Mr. Contreras said that by the time the fighting broke out Tuesday morning, there were around 9,000 people sheltering at the camp, down from a peak of around 17,000.
“All of our staff is safe and sound, according to the last reports we received,” Mr. Contreras said. “We have no reason to suspect or fear any kind of assault on our facility or attacks on our staff at this time.”
The fighting began on December 15 after Kiir, who dismissed Machar in July, accused Machar of attempting a coup. Machar has denied the accusation.
More than 1,000 people have been killed in clashes since then, including large numbers of civilians, and close to 180,000 people have been displaced over the two weeks of conflict. United Nations peacekeepers have had a difficult time trying to protect civilians; on December 19, around 2,000 armed youths overran a United Nations base in the town of Akobo, killing at least 11 civilians who had sought refuge there and two peacekeepers.
Museveni of Uganda has been outspoken in calling for concerted regional action to halt the conflict. “We gave Riek Machar four days to respond, and if he doesn’t, we shall have to go for him, all of us - that is what we agreed in Nairobi,” Museveni told reporters on Monday, referring to a meeting of East African leaders in the Kenyan capital last week.