S Sudan oil-state battles 'grave' concern - UN

2014-04-17 14:58

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Juba – The United Nations peacekeepers said on Thursday they are "gravely concerned" at heavy fighting in South Sudan's key oil state of Unity, after rebels seized the town of Bentiu in a renewed offensive.

The surge in fighting in the four-month-long conflict comes amid warnings by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that more than one million people are at risk of famine in the war-torn young country.

Peacekeepers from the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) patrolling the rebel-held state capital said they had seen between 35 and 40 corpses along the roadside, the majority in military uniform.

"UNMISS condemns these renewed hostilities in the strongest possible terms", the mission said in a statement, calling the battles "serious violations" of a broken ceasefire deal inked in January.

"Fighting will only exacerbate an already dire situation," it added.

Bentiu, one of the most bitterly contested regions in the war, is the first major settlement to have been retaken in a renewed offensive by forces of rebel leader Riek Machar, a former vice-president.

The conflict in South Sudan has left thousands dead and forced around a million people to flee their homes since fighting broke out on December 15 in the capital Juba before spreading to other states in the oil-rich nation.

Ethnic dimension

Over 12 000 civilians are now sheltering inside the UN base in Bentiu, protected by peacekeepers, with one person wounded inside the camp as bullets hit the camp from a nearby firefight.

Rebels overran the town on Tuesday, with the army saying it was preparing a counterattack to take it back.

Rebels had previously seized Bentiu in December at the beginning of the conflict, but were chased out of it a month later.

On Monday, UN peacekeepers rescued 10 employees from the Russian Safinat company as rebels attacked the oil refinery they were constructing north of Bentiu, including Russian, Ukranian and Kenyan citizens.

Five were wounded in the fighting.

The fighting is between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir against mutinous troops who sided with Machar, sacked as vice-president in 2013.

The conflict has also taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir's Dinka tribe against militia forces from Machar's Nuer people.

Read more on:    un  |  salva kiir  |  ban ki-moon  |  south sudan  |  east africa
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