South Sudan army’s sights on oil town Malakal after reclaiming Bor

Both rebels and the government have claimed in recent days to control the northeastern town, which has already changed hands twice

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South Sudanese troops fought Sunday to win back the key oil town of Malakal from rebels loyal to sacked vice president Riek Machar, the army said, a day after reclaiming the strategic town of Bor.

The army said its troops were launching an offensive to retake the rebel-held southern portion of Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state and one of the main battlefields since fighting erupted last month between rival forces loyal to Machar and President Salva Kiir.

Communications with forces on the ground have been spotty, but as of late Saturday, “they were preparing the final operation to clear the town,” army spokesman Philip Aguer told AFP.

Both rebels and the government have claimed in recent days to control the northeastern town, which has already changed hands twice and where rebels launched a new offensive Monday.

The army meanwhile said that a day after its key victory in Bor, the bitterly contested capital of Jonglei State, the road linking the town to the capital, Juba, about 200 kilometers (130 miles) south, had been cleared.

“We are telling the nation now that the Juba-Bor road is fully secured,” Lieutenant General Malual Ayom Dor said in a statement issued from Bor.

But he said other parts of the eastern state were still a battlefield.

“The liberation of Bor is not the liberation of Jonglei state. There are other places still where the rebels are active,” he said.

In the third key battleground of Bentiu, the capital of the northern state of Unity, the army spokesman said the situation was “quiet” Sunday.

South Sudan erupted into conflict on December 15 in what Kiir called a coup attempt by Machar, whom he sacked in July. The former vice president denies the charge and accuses his ex-boss of trying to purge his rivals.

The fighting has spiralled into ethnic killings between members of Kiir’s Dinka people -- the country’s largest group -- and Machar’s Nuer.

Up to 10,000 people are believed to have been killed so far in the conflict in the world’s newest nation, and the United Nations says 468,000 people have fled their homes because of the fighting.

State-linked media in neighboring Sudan said Sunday it had started admitting some of the thousands of South Sudanese trying to flee the violence.

Officials in White Nile state “confirmed that 1,500 refugees from South Sudan were taken to Sudanese land through the border at Joda,” reported the Sudanese Media Centre, which is close to the security apparatus.

The new arrivals have been given blankets, food, cooking utensils and other aid, local refugee coordinator Al-Tayeb Mohammed Abdullah told the SMC.

Another 4,000 South Sudanese are gathered on the frontier and just south of it, he said.

More than 80,000 South Sudanese have fled the country over the past month, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

The South Sudanese government and rebels are holding talks in neighboring Ethiopia, but they have made little concrete progress after two weeks.

On Saturday, the government said it was optimistic it could sign a ceasefire with the rebels within 48 hours.

But on Sunday rebel spokesman Hussein Mar Nyuot said the delegations were not even meeting.

“We haven’t met today because the delegation of the government is still in Juba,” he said. “They will come tomorrow, we are told.”