South Sudanese opposition forces on Monday accused government troops of attacking the Unity state hometown of former vice president Riek Machar, who fled into hiding in December after President Salva Kiir accused him of triggering nearly six weeks of violence around the country.
Lul Ruai Koang, a spokesman for Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army In Opposition, said government forces, together with rebels from Sudan, attacked Leer town over the weekend, and killed civilians as they tried to flee the fighting.
“On Saturday, a combined force comprised of units from Justice and Equality Movement and South Sudan Liberation Army militias advanced on Leer in the afternoon," Koang told VOA.
After opposition forces made what Koang called "a tactical withdrawal," the troops "entered Leer town and started burning down the... town and the surrounding villages," he said.
"And, not only that, they went as far as hunting down women and children and the elderly who had gone to hide in the nearby bushes and swampy areas, and they started killing them,” he added.
Koang said he believes Leer was attacked because it is the hometown of Machar, who Kiir has accused of trying to oust him in December, setting off weeks of violence that claimed thousands of lives and displaced more than three-quarters of a million people.
“There is no strategic, operation or tactical importance attached to Leer in terms of military perspective," Koang said.
"It is a small town on the banks of the White Nile River. The only important thing is that it is the home of the vice president, and that’s what the government is capitalizing on," he said.
The anti-govenrment side in South Sudan's recent conflict, which erupted on Dec. 15 when fighting broke out in Juba, also alleged that government forces attacked their positions in the Doliep Hills, south of the Upper Nile state capital, Malakal, and in another part of Unity state at the weekend.
If confirmed, the attacks would violate a cessation of hostilities agreement signed nearly two weeks ago by the two sides. The agreement calls for fighting to halt immediately, for all foreign forces that were invited in to South Sudan to fight to be withdrawn, and for an end to attacks on women, children and the elderly.
Koang accused the government of "intensifying the war" rather than ending the violence. "It is bringing in foreign fighters from Darfur, from Blue Nile, from Rwanda, from Congo and within a very short time we are going to have a regional war taking place in South Sudan,” he said.
Vice President James Wani Iga denied that the government had attacked opposition-held towns, saying, "We don’t intend to fight. We are for the agreement which was signed and this is actually what we are abiding with.”
A team from the regional body that brokered the cessation of hostilities agreement, IGAD, arrived in Juba on Sunday to begin setting up bases to monitor the peace deal signed in Addis Ababa on Jan. 23.
The head of the IGAD monitoring team, Ethiopian Major General Gebreegzabher Mebrahtu, was unable to confirm the opposition's claims of renewed fighting over the weekend.
Charlton Doki and Andrew Green contributed to this report from Juba.