South Sudanese rebels said they captured Malakal, the capital of oil-rich Upper Nile state, as talks aimed at securing a cease-fire in the nation’s four-week-old conflict continued for a second day.
Opposition forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar seized Malakal today after 72 hours of “heavy fighting,” rebel spokesman Brigadier-General Lul Ruai Koang said in a phone interview. The fighters now plan to recapture Bentiu, capital of neighboring Unity state, “within days,” he said. The rebels lost control of Bentiu on Jan. 10 when government forces advanced on the town.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir’s spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said fighting was continuing in Malakal after the rebels “pushed our forces” back to the airport. “It’s not yet clear who’s in control,” he said.
Government and rebel negotiators held another round of talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, aimed at ending hostilities that broke out on Dec. 15, when Kiir accused Machar of trying to stage a coup. Machar denies the charge. The dispute escalated into clashes between members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer group.
Almost 80,000 people have fled the country since fighting began, crossing the border to countries including Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The death toll from the conflict is approaching 10,000, according to the International Crisis Group, while 413,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, according to the UN.
The two sides may sign a cease-fire tomorrow and then start talks on the fate of 11 politicians detained without charge by the government, South Sudan Information Minister Michael Makuei told reporters today.
“We are progressing well and probably tomorrow we will agree on the cessation of hostilities,” he said.
At least 200 people died on Jan. 12 when a boat ferrying civilians fleeing the conflict in Malakal sank. The town is situated on the eastern shore of the White Nile River.
South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to BP Plc data. Since gaining independence in July 2011, it’s been exporting its crude through pipelines across Sudan. The fighting has cut output to about 200,000 barrels daily from 245,000 barrels a day, according to the government. Oil exports provide more than 95 percent of state revenue.
The violence has halted most of South Sudan’s oil production, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.
Negotiators in Ethiopia are focusing on three areas of disagreement -- the issue of the detained politicians, emergency laws in the states of Jonglei and Unity, and the presence of foreign troops in South Sudan, according to rebel spokesman Mabior Garang.
The rebels last week dropped their demand that the politicians be freed as a prerequisite for talks to start. The U.S., the UN and the European Union have called for the release of the prisoners.
Ugandan lawmakers today backed the deployment of the country’s army into South Sudan. The troops were sent last month to prevent the conflict from escalating into “genocide,” the state-run New Vision reported on Jan. 8, quoting army chief General Katumba Wamala.
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