JUBA: South Sudan’s army said on Tuesday it was battling rebels in three key states, as insurgents blamed for massacring hundreds of civilians in attacks last week continued an offensive targeting oil fields.
The rebels seized the town of Bentiu last week, unleashing two days of ethnic slaughter as they hunted down civilians sheltering in mosques, churches and a hospital, according to the United Nations.
Bentiu is the capital of the key oil-producing state of Unity. Government forces said they have been forced to pull out of another major settlement nearby amid furious rebel attacks.
“The battles have been very heavy in Unity state,” army spokesman Philip Aguer told Agence France-Presse, adding that troops made a “tactical withdrawal” from the town of Mayom, a strategic local center made up of dusty roads and thatch huts, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Bentiu.
South Sudan’s army has been fighting rebels loyal to sacked vice president Riek Machar since the unrest broke out more than four months ago.
The conflict has an ethnic dimension, pitting President Salva Kiir’s Dinka tribe against militia forces from Machar’s Nuer people.
“Fighting is ongoing, we are close by and will not let the rebels advance further,” Aguer added, insisting that the army remained in control of major oil fields and the country’s refinery, also in Unity state.
Piles of bodies
In Bentiu, the UN on Monday reported one of the worst atrocities in the conflict.
Toby Lanzer, the top UN aid official in the country, told Agence France-Presse after visiting Bentiu he had witnessed the “most terrible sight.”
“There are piles of bodies lining the streets where they had been executed, in the market, outside and inside places of worship…the majority wearing civilian clothes,” Lanzer said on Monday.
Fighters took to the radio to urge men to rape women from the opposition ethnic group and said rival groups should be forced from the town, the UN said.
Rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang on Tuesday rejected the UN accusations as “unfounded, cheap propaganda,” pinning the blame on government forces.
But the UN said the killings continued for two days after the rebels claimed victory in the town, including issuing a statement boasting of “mopping and cleaning up operations.”
The United States has threatened sanctions against those responsible for continuing the war.
The US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power in a statement on Tuesday warned that “all responsible for South Sudan horrors and deliberately targeting civilians must be held accountable.”
Heavy fighting on Tuesday was also reported in the eastern state of Jonglei, and in Upper Nile in the northeast, with Aguer boasting the army had repulsed the attacks and killed scores of rebels.
“In Upper Nile…the number of rebels killed was 48,” he said, claims that were not possible to independently verify.