South Sudan's rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar confirmed Friday that his forces had lost control of the key northern oil town of Bentiu, but vowed his fighters would continue their battle against the government.
"We withdrew from Bentiu, but it was to avoid fighting in the streets and save civilian lives. We fight on, we will continue the battle," Machar told AFP by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location in the country.
He said, however, that the rebels would remain engaged in peace talks that are taking place in neighbouring Ethiopia.
"Yes, we are committed," he said, without giving any indication if he was willing to agree to the immediate and unconditional ceasefire international mediators are seeking.
The peace talks have been overshadowed by continued clashes between President Salva Kiir’s SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army) government forces and rebels loyal to Machar.
The fighting first erupted on December 15 in Juba before rapidly spreading along ethnic faultlines across the country. Kiir is from the country’s Dinka group while Machar is a Nuer. The two tribal groups have fought each other in the past for domination, influence and resources.
Kiir has accused his long-term political rival Machar, whom he dismissed in July, of attempting to stage a coup and arrested 11 senior political figures he said were involved in the alleged plot.
Speaking to reporters in Addis Ababa, a rebel military spokesman described the loss of Bentiu as a "temporary setback".
"Our forces made a tactical withdrawal to avoid civilian casualties," Lul Ruai Koang said.
"The government does not have the capacity to defeat us militarily," he added, accusing the South Sudanese government of "bringing in mercenaries" from neighbouring Uganda and the Darfur region of Sudan.
He also said rebels still controlled Unity State's oil infrastructure outside of Bentiu.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-01-10