1 000s flee South Sudan clashes
Juba - Thousands of civilians have fled heavy clashes between rebels and south Sudan's army in key oil-producing Unity state, officials said on Saturday.
"The fighting in recent days has been very fierce, and the people have been running away from the violence to safety," said Charles Machieng, commissioner of Mayom county, the area of heaviest fighting.
"Although we have no reports of fighting today [Saturday], assessments show that there are 3 800 civilians who have fled, many who are here in Mayom town because their houses have been destroyed," he added.
Clashes in the soon-to-be-independent south broke out on Tuesday between the army and the rebels, one of at least seven separate militia groups battling the southern government.
More than 800 people have been killed and 94 000 people forced from their homes in fighting since January, according to UN estimates, when southerners voted overwhelming to forge their own nation in a largely peaceful referendum.
No reliable death toll of casualties is available, with the rebels and the army each claiming to have killed "several" on the other side, and dismissing each other's reports as lies.
The fighting has also forced the evacuation of 130 northern oil industry workers from the volatile region.
Machieng said reinforcements from the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) drove the rebels out of the small town of Mankien on Friday, after two days of fighting there.
"The whole market there and many houses have been destroyed by fire," he said. "The rebels are being chased, and have scattered in different directions."
However, the rebels, led by former southern army general Peter Gadet, said they had deliberately withdrawn.
"The SPLA have sent in large reinforcements, but they have not defeated us," said rebel spokesperson Bol Gatkouth, a former lawmaker in the south's parliament.
He too confirmed that large numbers of civilians had fled the fighting.
"We are just resting in a secure place for now," Bol said. "This fight is far from over."
The rebels, who call themselves the "South Sudan Liberation Army", said earlier this month they wanted to overthrow the southern government, denouncing the "rampant corruption" at the top levels of the SPLM, the south's ruling party.
The SPLM has repeatedly accused Khartoum of arming splinter militia groups like Gadet's to destabilise the south ahead of its secession from the north in July, a claim Khartoum rejects. Fighting in the south is raising concern for the plight of civilians, as the region gears up for independence.
Human Rights Watch last week accused both the army and another rebel group of human rights violations against civilians during clashes in Upper Nile state in early March.