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South Sudan loyalists eye last rebel-held town

11 January 2014, 16:09

Juba - South Sudan's loyalist troops prepared Saturday for an offensive on the last major town held by rebels, a day after recapturing the country's main oil hub.

Meanwhile the United Nations urged President Salva Kiir to release detainees in a show of goodwill to kickstart stalled peace talks in Ethiopia.

Riek Machar, the sacked vice president who took the helm of the rebellion that formed after rival army units clashed in mid-December, remained defiant after losing Bentiu on Friday.

"We withdrew from Bentiu, but it was to avoid fighting in the streets and save civilian lives," he told AFP by phone from an undisclosed location.

He vowed to defend the central town of Bor, which is the capital of the flashpoint state of Jonglei and lies around 200km north of Juba.

"We fight on, we will continue the battle," he said.

The government has said it was mobilising thousands of troops to deal a final blow to the rebellion.

Even as thousands of civilians continued to cross the White Nile to flee the fighting around Bor, loyalist soldiers crossed the river in the other direction to return to battle.

An AFP reporter in Minkammen, a town on the opposing shore of the river hosting thousands of displaced, saw dozens of government soldiers boarding barges heading to the frontline near Bor.

Rebels say oil facilities still in their hands

A military spokesman for Machar insisted that while rebels had lost the town of Bentiu, the area's vital oil infrastructure was still in rebel hands.

Oil exports account for more than 90 percent of South Sudan's revenues. Output has dropped at least 20 percent since the fighting broke out in Juba on December 15.

The UN has said that "very substantially in excess" of 1 000 people have already been killed in the fighting but the ICG think tank estimated the figure was likely closer to 10 000.

A quarter of a million people have also been displaced as what started as a power struggle has morphed into a bitter civil conflict with ethnic overtones, pitting Kiir's majority Dinka tribe aginst Machar's Nuer community.

Top UN aid chief in South Sudan Toby Lanzer has warned of an "unfolding humanitarian catastrophe" ravaging the country, two and half years after its birth.

On Friday, UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged Kiir to accept Machar's demand that 11 of his aides jailed when the violence kicked off be released before peace talks can begin.

"I called President Salva Kiir yesterday again and urged him to demonstrate leadership and political flexibility by immediately releasing political prisoners," he said. "South Sudan is at a crossroads."

The 15-nation Security Council also demanded the release of the detainees in order to "create an environment conducive to a successful dialogue" between Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar.

Military action

Kiir's side has insisted the 11 must face legal proceedings.

Regional mediators in Addis Ababa said they remained optimistic that peace delegates from the two sides meeting in a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa would agree to a ceasefire.

A proposal calls on both sides to "cease all military action aimed at each other" and to "agree to immediately cease all military operations and freeze their forces," according to a draft seen by AFP.

The United States, which was instrumental in helping South Sudan win independence from Khartoum in 2011, has also said it feared the country risked imploding and urged the two sides to immediately agree to a truce.

Aid agencies seeking to assist the displaced and wounded are also struggling.

Doctors without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres - MSF) said its facilities in Bentiu were looted, while other aid organisations have reported similar incidents - including cars being stolen at gunpoint.



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