East African bloc IGAD on Friday blamed the recent surge in violence in South Sudan on forces loyal to President Salva Kiir.
In a statement released in Addis Ababa, IGAD said South Sudanese "government forces have been conducting full-scale military offensives against opposition forces" in more than half of the nine counties in oil-rich Unity state. The statement says the government appears to be expanding its military campaign into Jonglei and Upper Nile states.
The allegations are based on reports from monitoring and verification teams deployed in South Sudan last year under the terms of a January 2014 cessation of hostilities agreement that IGAD brokered.
In addition to reporting to IGAD on the new outbreaks of fighting, the monitoring teams have sent "credible reports... of acts of violence targeting civilians, grave human rights abuses and destruction of villages," IGAD said.
The regional bloc, which has tried for more than 16 months to broker a peace deal for South Sudan, said more than 100,000 people have been displaced since the latest fighting began on April 27.
U.S., UNMISS express concern
Earlier this week, the United States said it was "deeply concerned by new reports of heavy fighting in Unity state, following a government offensive against opposition forces."
And on Thursday, the head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), Ellen Margrethe Løj, told the U.N. Security Council that "...we have reports of SPLA advances and fighting" in Unity state.
UNMISS head Ellen Margrethe Løj
Løj said the South Sudanese army is pushing into southern parts of the state, where one of South Sudan's largest oil blocks is located.
Løj also said UNMISS has had reports of “... widespread human rights abuses including murder, rape and harassment of civilians" during the latest uptick in fighting. She said UNMISS will "do our utmost to investigate what has been happening in Unity state during the most recent fighting."
The South Sudanese government rejected allegations that its forces are behind the latest violence.
"We have been under a lot of pressure from the rebels for the last month," South Sudan's ambassador to the United States, Garang Diing Akuong, told South Sudan in Focus.
"Our positions in Bentiu and around Bentiu were being bombarded, shelled by the rebels, and we have kept the promise that we will keep the cessation of hositlities in place," he said. "But what is happening now is that we are defending our positions. We are pursuing the rebels and trying to defend ourselves and consolidate our positions."
Akuong said President Salva Kiir is keen to return to the negotiating table to try to end the 17-month-old conflict.
"We want to end this war by peaceful settlement. But the rebels are saying they are coming to Juba. So now the government is defending itself, but people are saying the government is on the offensive," he said.
The ambassador questioned the reliability of the information on which IGAD, the United Nations and the United States based their accusations.
Akuong said IGAD monitoring and verification teams and UNMISS are based in the Unity state capital, Bentiu -- far from the fighting. "So, how would they know that we are attacking or on the offensive when it is we who are coming under pressure from the rebels?" he asked.
IGAD said the South Sudanese army has been preventing monitoring teams from traveling outside Bentiu since the latest fighting began.