JUBA - South Sudan army officials and rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar traded accusations Monday over who started new fighting at the weekend in oil-rich Upper Nile state.
SPLA spokesman Philip Aguer blamed opposition forces for starting the new round of clashes in the town of Dolieb, on the Sobat River, on Sunday.
“The rebels attacked SPLA positions using artilleries and crossed the river, but the SPLA repulsed them and they are being pursued into Korfulus and Canal area, in Pigi county," in neighboring Jonglei state, Aguer said.
But Lul Ruai Koang, the military spokesman for the rebels, said government forces are to blame for the unrest. He said the SPLA, with backing from a local militia, early Monday "...started moving towards our positions south of Sobat River," which forms a natural border between Upper Nile and Jonglei states.
"The fighting started in the morning and it was accompanied by shelling of our positions at Canal, at the mouth of Jonglei Canal,” Koang said.
Although Dolieb is only around 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state has not been affected by the fighting, state information minister Peter Hoth said.
“There are a lot of SPLA troops deployed in that particular location, so civilians are very confident and are doing their normal business. There is no problem around Malakal town,” Hoth said.
The new round of clashes came just days after fierce fighting in and around Bentiu, the capital of Unity state. Unity and Upper Nile states are the main producers of South Sudan's oil, which is the backbone of the country's economy.
The new outbreak of fighting also comes as the long-running and slow-moving peace talks led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) are poised to resume in Ethiopia.
Koang said this is not the first time that the government has launched a new round of fighting just before the peace talks are to resume.
“It has become a tradition of the government troops, whenever we are resuming peace talks, they would go on the offensive, trying to get more territories from us to strengthen the positions of their negotiators at peace talks," said the rebel spokesman, Koang.
"This is what they have been doing each time we are having peace talks,” said Koang said.
Aguer, however, insisted that the SPLA is not trying to sideline the peace process. He said rebel forces were responsible for the latest violence in Upper Nile.
"The SPLA is only fighting in self-defense. We are still committed to the ceasefire,” he said.
The International Crisis Group think tank warned in a report last week that both sides in South Sudan’s 11-month-old conflict are planning to launch major offensives when the rainy season ends this month.