South Sudanese rebels and government forces fought for control of the capital of oil-rich Upper Nile state, the only region in the world’s newest nation that’s still producing crude two months after violence erupted.
Both sides claimed control of the town of Malakal after fighting started yesterday in violation of a cease-fire they signed on Jan. 23 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Sounds of shelling could be heard from a United Nations compound in Malakal as early as 8 a.m. today, Grace Cahill, a spokeswoman for Oxfam, said by phone from Juba, the South Sudanese capital.
Some of the internally displaced people seeking shelter inside the compound have left “because they felt they weren’t protected enough, while others came in to receive treatment last night,” Cahill said.
Fighting that started Dec. 15 has left thousands of people dead and forced at least 860,000 more to flee their homes, according to the UN. Yesterday’s clashes probably won’t derail peace talks that resumed last week, U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth said in a interview in Addis Ababa.
“There’s been continued fighting so I wouldn’t characterize this as one event that could tip things,” he said. “This needs to be brought to a halt to facilitate not only the delivery of humanitarian assistance but to getting on to addressing the root causes of the problem.”
Clashes started in South Sudan after President Salva Kiir accused former Vice President Riek Machar, whom he fired in July, of leading a failed coup. The ensuing violence pitted members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community against Machar’s Nuer group.
Lul Ruai Koang, a spokesman for the insurgents in Addis Ababa, said the rebels took control of Malakal after they repulsed an attack by government soldiers and “pursued them and flushed them out from near the airport.”
South Sudanese army spokesman Philip Aguer said the situation in Malakal is unclear after yesterday’s attack by rebel forces.
“We are still trying to establish communication with our field commanders,” Aguer said by phone today from Juba. “We can confirm that rebel forces were in one part of the town yesterday, but our forces were also there in another part.”
Ethnic violence flared up yesterday at the UN’s Malakal compound where 21,568 people have sought safety after security personnel concentrated on securing the perimeter of the camp, according to a statement from the UN Mission in South Sudan. The area has been secured, according to the statement. Ten people died from clashes inside and outside the camp, it said.
South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in July 2011, has sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest oil reserves, according to BP Plc data.
While oil production has been halted in Unity state because of the violence, output in Upper Nile state has been unaffected so far and is pumping 160,000 to 200,000 barrels a day, South Sudanese Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said Feb. 11.
“There’s no fighting in the oilfields,” Aguer said. “Fighting is in Malakal.”
The country’s low-sulfur crude is prized by Japanese buyers as a cleaner-burning fuel for power generation. The country has the capacity to produce as much as 350,000 to 400,000 barrels per day, Benjamin said.
China National Petroleum Corp., India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp. and Petroliam Nasional Bhd., the main producers of South Sudan’s oil, evacuated employees from the country because of the fighting.
Aguer demanded that regional mediators working to help end the conflict in South Sudan deal with rebels’ violation of the cease-fire.
“They’ve already declared that they don’t respect the cessation of hostilities,” Aguer said. “We’ve been on our positions, defending our positions. We respect the cease-fire.”