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South Sudan Army Fights to Recapture Key Towns

South Sudan government troops are preparing to launch an attack to recapture Bentiu, the capital of oil-rich Unity state, which fell to forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar at the weekend, a military official said Wednesday.

“The SPLA forces are in the western part of the state and the SPLA is reorganizing. Definitely they will launch an attack on Bentiu any time,” army spokesman Philip Aguer said.

Former SPLA Fourth Division Commander General James Koang Chuol said early this week he defectecd from the army, seized control of Bentiu and declared himself governor of Unity state after what he says was a government attempt to assassinate him.

Aguer denied the government ordered Koang's assassination.

The planned military action to retake Bentiu was announced a day after the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said in a report that a mass grave containing at least 75 bodies had been found near the town.

Several hours later, though, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) revised the number of bodies in the mass grave downward, to 15.

SPLA Fights to Retake Upper Nile Capital

The SPLA was also engaged in heavy fighting to recapture Malakal, the capital of another oil-producing state, Upper Nile. Aguer described the situation in the town as chaotic.

"Yesterday, there was fighting and the SPLA controlled the fight yesterday. But toward the evening, a group of armed men started looting the market," he said.

"That developed until this morning, and there is still confusion in Malakal. The two groups are still inside Malakal – the loyalists to the government and the rebels seem to be in the southern part of the town. There’s rampant looting and shooting," the army spokesman said.

The SPLA retook Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, on Tuesday and were "mopping up the area and trying to make an assessment of the casualties. So far we don’t have an assessment of the dead and the wounded," Aguer said.

Civilians fleeing violence seek refuge at UN compound in Bor, Jonglei state, South Sudan, Dec. 18, 2013.
Civilians fleeing violence seek refuge at UN compound in Bor, Jonglei state, South Sudan, Dec. 18, 2013.
Jonglei state officials who took refuge, along with thousands of other civilians, at the U.N. compound in Bor when the unrest spread there from Juba, were unable to confirm that the army has recaptured the town. The officials asked not to be identified for security reasons.

South Sudan's capital, Juba, where the unrest first erupted 10 days ago in what President Salva Kiir said was an abortive coup, led by former Vice President Machar, was calm Wednesday. Machar, whom Kiir fired in July, has denied that he was behind any attempt to oust the president.

Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced by the violence, many of them seeking refuge at U.N. compounds and bases. Officials have estimated that hundreds, if not thousands, have died since the unrest erupted in Juba on Dec. 15, although a precise number is not available.

Witnesses and rights organizations say the violence quickly took on tribal overtones, with many victims targeted for being Dinka or Nuer, the ethnic groups of Kiir and Machar, respectively.

In a Christmas Eve message, Kiir called on South Sudanese to stop all tribal violence and to "put the interest of our newly independent nation first." Mentioning Machar by name, he urged him and forces supporting him to do the same.

The White House has issued a message from President Barack Obama, in Dinka and Nuer, urging South Sudanese leaders to find the courage and commitment to end the violence through dialogue.

U.S. President Barack Obama's message to South Sudan, in Nuer
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U.S. President Barack Obama's message to South Sudan, in Dinka
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Kiir has agreed to meet with Machar, without preconditions, but the former vice president, who went into hiding after the unrest first broke out, has said he will not come to the negotiating table until 11 senior members of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) are released from prison.