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South Sudanese Army Seizes Town Used as Base by Rebel Leader

South Sudanese Rebel Leader Riek Machar
South Sudanese rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar, center, sits in South Sudan's upper Nile state, on April 14, 2014. Photographer: Zacharias Abubeker/AFP via Getty Images

South Sudanese government forces seized the stronghold of the country’s rebel leader and the capital of oil-rich Unity state from insurgents, drawing criticism from the U.S. for violating a January truce.

Government forces yesterday retook Unity’s capital, Bentiu, and Nasir, the town in neighboring Upper Nile state used as a base by former Vice President Riek Machar, army spokesman Philip Aguer said by phone today from the national capital, Juba. Rebel spokesman Mabior Garang confirmed the army had recaptured the towns.

“It’s not a fragile takeover,” Aguer said. Nasir is “very crucial because that was the headquarters of Riek Machar.” The government expects attacks on the oil-producing state to cease as a result, he said.

Fighting erupted in the world’s newest nation on Dec. 15 with President Salva Kiir accusing Machar of leading a coup, a charge Machar denies. Violence has left thousands of people dead and forced more than a million to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.

South Sudan’s army repelled another attack by insurgents on Bentiu this morning and remains in control of the town, Defense Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk said by phone from Juba. A rebel commander in Unity state, James Koang Chol, didn’t immediately answer calls to his satellite phone.

The seizure of Nasir and Bentiu “doesn’t mean anything really decisive,” insurgent spokesman Garang said earlier by phone from Ethiopia. “They’re just battles -- the government has not won the war. They’re just controlling the towns and we’re in the whole countryside.”

Government Offensive

The U.S. condemned the South Sudanese government’s new offensive as a violation of a cessation-of-hostilities agreement signed four months ago, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters today in Angola’s capital, Luanda.

South Sudan’s oil output has fallen by about a third to 160,000 barrels per day since the violence began, according to the Petroleum Ministry. Machar had vowed to seize oil fields in Upper Nile, the only state still pumping crude, to starve the military of revenue.

Upper Nile produces Dar Blend, a low-sulfur crude that is prized by Japanese buyers as a cleaner-burning fuel for power plants. China National Petroleum Corp., India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp. and Petroliam Nasional Bhd., the main producers of South Sudan’s oil, evacuated some employees from the country because of the violence.

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