Days after US Secretary of State John Kerry secured a deal on direct peace talks for South Sudan, the army overran a rebel base in Nasir and retook the northern oil hub of Bentiu, forcing rebel leader Riek Machar to flee, the military said Sunday.
Army spokesman Philip Aguer told AFP that the advance had forced Machar, whose troops have been fighting those loyal to President Salva Kiir since mid-December, to flee toward the Ethiopian border amid a major offensive launched despite ongoing international peace efforts.
The attack comes just days after President Kiir agreed to hold direct talks with Machar on ending the civil war in the world's youngest nation during Kerry's visit to the country.
"Our forces captured Nasir this morning. After we launched an assault yesterday with heavy bombardments, the town is ours. The rebels, including Riek Machar, are fleeing towards the Ethiopian border. We are still advancing," Aguer said.
Nasir, situated close to the border with Ethiopia, has been one of the main bases for Machar and his rebel army.
Government troops had also moved into the northern oil hub of Bentiu, capital of oil-rich Unity State and a town that has changed hands several times throughout the conflict.
The latest government advance again leaves President Kiir in control of all of South Sudan's main towns, although the rebels have bounced back from similar setbacks in the past.
Independent sources contacted in Bentiu confirmed that government soldiers were now inside the town following a morning of fierce fighting with the rebels, although sporadic fighting was continuing on the edge of town.
"Government soldiers are now in Bentiu, they appear to be in control," an independent aid worker in the town said.
Bentiu fell into rebel hands last month, and opposition forces were accused by the United Nations of massacring hundreds of civilians.
Both sides in the conflict have been accused of war crimes including mass killings, rape, attacks on hospitals and places of worship, and recruiting child soldiers.
US peace efforts floundering
Kerry visited South Sudan on Friday and secured an agreement from President Kiir to meet with Machar in Addis Ababa in the coming days, with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn acting as mediator.
The top US diplomat, who brandished the threat of sanctions if either Kiir or Machar fail to end their war, said he hoped the two would agree to finally implement a moribund ceasefire deal and set up a transitional government.
But the independent Sudan Tribune website said it had interviewed Machar in a rebel-held part of the country following Kerry's visit and quoted Machar as saying that face-to-face talks with Kiir "may be counter-productive" – throwing the prospect of any talks into doubt.
US President Barack Obama signed a decree last month authorising punitive sanctions – including the seizure of assets and visa bans – against anyone in South Sudan deemed to be threatening peace efforts.
The United States was instrumental in South Sudan's efforts to win independence from Khartoum, and has been under pressure to push for peace following the swift collapse of the three-year-old state.
The war in the world's youngest country has claimed thousands – and possibly tens of thousands – of lives, with at least 1.2 million people forced to flee their homes, many living in appalling conditions in overstretched UN bases and in fear of ethnic violence.
Although starting out as a personal rivalry between Kiir and Machar, who was sacked as vice president after Kiir accused him of planning a coup, the conflict has since seen armies divide along ethnic lines, with fighting pitting members of Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer.
Aid agencies are also warning that South Sudan is now on the brink of Africa's worst famine since the 1980s, while both Kerry and the UN human rights chief have spoken out over their fears that the country could slide towards a genocide.
The conflict erupted on December 15 when Kiir accused Machar of planning to overthriw him. Machar then fled to the bush and launched a rebellion, insisting that the president had attempted to carry out a bloody purge of his rivals.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-05-04