South Sudan General Vows to Protect Key Oil Fields From Rebels

South Sudan’s only oil fields still pumping crude after four months of conflict are safe from rebel attacks, the army general charged with defending them said.

Rebel leader Riek Machar’s threat to seize the Paloch oil field in Upper Nile state is a “joke,” Lieutenant-General Johnson Gony Biliu said in an April 14 interview in the state capital, Malakal. Insurgents can’t reach the fields through the war-ravaged town and have failed “five times” to seize Paloch by another route, he said.

“The oil fields are secure,” Biliu, sector commander for government forces in Upper Nile, said. Machar “has failed militarily” to take them. The army recaptured Malakal on March 20 from rebel forces who had controlled the town for about a month.

South Sudan’s oil has become a key target for insurgents opposed to President Salva Kiir, with Machar vowing to capture Paloch and deprive the military of revenue. On April 15, rebels recaptured Bentiu, capital of the oil-rich neighboring state of Unity, and ordered companies operating in government-held territory to suspend crude output and evacuate staff within a week.

The nation’s oil output has fallen by about a third to 160,000 barrels per day since fighting erupted on Dec. 15 between factions loyal to Kiir and his former deputy, Machar. The conflict has left thousands of people dead and forced more than a million to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.

Ethnic Fighting

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 employees from the country because of the violence.

In some locations, fighting has pitted members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community against those belonging to Machar’s Nuer group. Peace talks taking place in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, have stalled amid disputes over participation and accusations of breaching a cease-fire agreed in January.

Flanked by his two deputies, Biliu vowed to continue the fight against rebels in the absence of a political settlement and step up efforts to secure Malakal’s oil fields.

Biliu, a member of the Nuer community from Jonglei state, called the conflict a “senseless, meaningless war.”

Machar is “trying to change the regime but he cannot do it through a barrel of a gun,” he said.

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