South Sudan’s Death Toll Approaches 10,000 as Fighting Rages

The death toll in South Sudan’s four-week-old conflict may be close to 10,000, as fighting continues in the world’s newest nation, the International Crisis Group said.

“We believe the death toll to be approaching 10,000,” Casie Copeland, an analyst for Brussels-based ICG, said in an e-mailed response to questions. The United Nations has said the conflict has killed thousands of people and forced about 270,000 to flee their homes. The rebels estimate that as many as 6,000 people may have died.

Government forces today recaptured Bentiu, capital of oil-producing Unity state, army spokesman Phillip Aguer said by phone from Juba. The army is now advancing on Bor, the capital of Jonglei state that’s currently held by the rebels, he said.

Fighting began on Dec. 15 after President Salva Kiir accused former Vice President Riek Machar of trying to stage a coup, a charge Machar denies. The dispute escalated into clashes between members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer group.

The army completed its recapture of Bentiu at about 2:30 p.m. local time, Aguer said.

“The oilfields are all under the control of government forces,” Defense Minister Kuol Manyang said today by phone from Juba.

The insurgents still hold Unity state’s oilfields, rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang told reporters today in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital where peace talks started this week. Government troops “are only in control of the state capital,” he said.

Oil Companies

The rebel commander around Bentiu, General James Koang Chol, confirmed that government forces had retaken the city.

“Capturing Bentiu cannot solve the problem,” he said by satellite phone from an undisclosed location. “We will organize ourselves and we will attack them. We will regain the control.”

Companies including China National Petroleum Corp. and India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp. have evacuated employees from the country.

“The latest information that I have is that many of the oil wells have been stopped, I don’t know what the percentage is,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. “There’s some oil left in the pipeline but much of the pumping has ceased.”

Cease-Fire Proposal

South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to BP Plc data. It has been exporting all of its crude -- about 245,000 barrels a day -- through pipelines across Sudan. The fighting has cut output to about 200,000 barrels daily, according to the government. Oil exports provide more than 95 percent of state revenue.

Government and rebel negotiators in Addis Ababa are studying a cease-fire proposal presented by East African mediators, Mabior Garang, a spokesman for the insurgents, said today by phone.

The U.S., South Sudan’s biggest aid donor, said yesterday it doesn’t believe there was a coup attempt and urged the government to release 11 politicians who were detained when the fighting broke out.

“We have not seen any evidence of a coup attempt,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Release Politicians

The U.S. also “strongly believes” that Kiir’s government should release 11 politicians arrested after the violence started, Thomas-Greenfield said. The authorities in Juba have refused calls by the rebels, the U.S., the European Union and East African mediators to free the detainees.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he called Kiir yesterday and urged him “to demonstrate leadership and political flexibility by immediately releasing political prisoners,” according to an e-mailed statement from the world body today.

The prisoners have political grievances and “it’s important those grievances be heard,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “This crisis will not be solved on the battlefield.”

The detainees, who include Pagan Amum, former secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and Deng Alor, ex-minister of cabinet affairs, have said their imprisonment “should not impede the progress of negotiations,” Garang said in an interview.

An additional 5,500 security personnel the United Nations Security Council authorized to strengthen a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan will take four to eight weeks to complete deployment, Herve Ladsous, the UN under secretary-general for peacekeeping, said yesterday.

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