South Sudan retakes oil town from rebels
JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — South Sudanese troops on Friday retook the capital of an oil-producing state from rebels loyal to the country’s former vice president, a military spokesman said.
Government troops retook Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, after a 2 ½-hour battle, Col. Philip Aguer said.
Aguer said the forces loyal to the former vice president, Riek Machar, had “destroyed” the town. Rebels looted the bank, stole food and set the market on fire, Aguer said.
Doctors Without Borders, which is also known as MSF, said its facilities in Bentiu were also looted.
“It is unacceptable that one of the only humanitarian organizations still providing assistance to the population in Bentiu has been looted,” MSF General Director Arjan Hehenkamp said.
The loss of Bentiu weakens Machar at the negotiating table in Ethiopia, where mediators are trying to defuse a political conflict that broke out Dec. 15 and descended into ethnic attacks and military battles.
Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese have been displaced in the nearly monthlong conflict. The U.N. has said only that more than 1,000 people are believed to have been killed. But Casie Copeland, South Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group, said Friday she believes nearly 10,000 have died.
Most of those killed, she said, are combatants who died in major battles: in the capital, Juba, and in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state. In all, fighting has been seen in 30 locations, said Copeland, who said her estimate is a compilation of figures from the U.N., aid workers, the internally displaced, government officials and combatants.
Aguer said troops will soon retake Bor, which rebels still control.
Talks in Ethiopia haven’t made much progress. Machar’s side insists that 11 political prisoners held by the government of President Salva Kiir must be released. The U.S. has also called for the release of those prisoners so they can take part in the negotiations.
On Friday, the U.N. Security Council released a statement calling for Kiir’s government to release the political detainees to promote the talks, and for both sides — “Mr. Machar in particular” — to declare a cease-fire and begin broader peace negotiations.
The Security Council also “strongly discouraged external intervention that would exacerbate the military and political tensions.”
Uganda is an ally of Kiir’s government and has sent in hundreds of troops and provided Sudanese government forces with military hardware and threatened deeper intervention if militants move on the capital, Juba.
Associated Press writer Peter James Spielmann contributed to this story from the United Nations.