x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

South Sudan’s military loses control of town as fighting spreads

Military loses control of Bor in the state of Jonglei to soldiers loyal to former vice president Riek Machar, as fighting spreads in what president claims is coup attempt.

Civilians gather outside a UN compound in Bor, believed captured by forces loyal to fugitive former vice president Riek Machar. Rolla Hinedi / AFP
Civilians gather outside a UN compound in Bor, believed captured by forces loyal to fugitive former vice president Riek Machar. Rolla Hinedi / AFP

JUBA // South Sudan’s military said yesterday it has lost control of a key town in an oil-producing state where fighting has spread following what the president described as an attempted coup by soldiers loyal to a former deputy president.

“We lost control of Bor to the rebellion,” said Philip Aguer, the South Sudanese military spokesman.

Authorities in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, were not answering their phones, leading the central government to believe they had defected, said Mr Aguer.

He said there were reported gunfights in Bor overnight as renegade officers tried to wrest control of the town from loyalist forces there.

Jodi Jongole Boyoris, a parliamentarian from the area, confirmed that soldiers loyal to former vice president Riek Machar now controlled the town. Ethnic rivalry is threatening to tear apart the world’s newest country, with the clashes apparently pitting soldiers from the majority Dinka tribe of president Salva Kiir against those from Mr Machar’s Nuer ethnic group.

While the government insists a coup was foiled on Sunday, when heavy gunfire erupted in the capital, Juba, some analysts say it remains unknown what sparked the violence and doubt the government’s characterisation of events.

By the government’s own account, at least 500 people, mostly soldiers, have been killed in violence in the city since Sunday, raising questions about whether there have been targeted killings on a massive scale.

The International Crisis Group reported that armed groups in Juba have “targeted civilians based on ethnicity”.

“What has for some time been a political crisis within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) has now spilled over into an army that has long been riven by internal problems, including ethnic divisions and tensions,” the group said. “The blurred lines between these institutions, senior political figures and ethnic communities — as well as wide-scale arms proliferation — make the current situation particularly volatile.”

It called for a respected international mediator at a time when the country’s leaders are locked “in high-stakes gambles for power”.

Mr Machar, an influential politician who is a hero of the brutal war of independence against Sudan, is Mr Kiir’s rival for top leadership of the ruling SPLM. Tensions had been mounting since Mr Kiir fired Mr Machar as his deputy in July.

Mr Machar, the deputy chairman of the ruling party, later said he would contest the presidency in 2015.

At the time, the United States and the European Union urged calm amid fears the dismissal could spark political upheaval in the country.

* Associated Press