JUBA - The South Sudan army said Tuesday its forces are still fighting rebels in Lakes state, a day after the state was reportedly dragged into the violence that has engulfed several other parts of the country for the past 13 months.
SPLA spokesman, Col. Philip Aguer, said fighting has also flared up in Unity state and blamed Machar's rebels for that violence.
But a spokesman for the rebels insisted that the armed opposition is not involved in the fighting in Lakes state, and did not comment about the fighting in Unity state.
Aguer on Monday blamed rebels loyal to Machar for bringing South Sudan's 13-month-old conflict into Lakes state when they attacked government positions in Maper village in Rumbek North county.
Aguer said it has been difficult getting details from the ground about the clashes in Maper.
"The communication in the area is very poor as there is no network in that part of Lakes State," Aguer said. "We are waiting to know what the details of that attack are.”
He said the SPLA believes its forces are pursuing the retreating rebels but was unable to provide details.
The SPLA spokesman said the rebels are also responsible for an attack on Monday in Unity state.
“The forces of Riek Machar in Unity State attacked and burnt a well of oil in a place call Tom’s House. Tom’s House is at the border to the north of between Panakuach and Panthou,” he said.
Lakes state has been relatively peaceful since South Sudan erupted in violence in December 2013. Thousands of South Sudanese who have been displaced by fighting in Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states, where the fighting has been concentrated, have sought shelter in Lakes state.
Lul Ruai Koang, the military spokesman for the rebels, said he has seen reports that indicate civilians, including women and children, were the main victims of the fighting in Lakes state.
"It is not our culture to attack any place to kill women and children," Koang said. "These are the two reasons why I have been consistently denying any responsibility."
UN-run Radio Miraya said Monday that several houses were burnt down and an unspecified number of civilians were killed in the clashes in Lakes state, but there has been no independent confirmation that the fighting there involved the SPLA and rebel forces.
Cattle rustlers suspected
Koang said cattle raiders could be behind the fighting.
“There is no evidence showing that our forces were the ones that engaged the government troops," he said. "I am suspecting cattle rustlers... maybe the government troops have been pursuing cattle rustlers back to Unity state.’’
The two sides have also blamed each other for attacks over the weekend in the northern part of Upper Nile state. The clashes are the latest in a series of violations of the cessation of hostilities agreement, brokered by the regional group IGAD and signed by the government and armed opposition nearly a year ago. The deal, which was supposed to end the fighting, has never taken hold.
A regional summit on South Sudan is due to be held at the end of this month on the sidelines of an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa.
John Tanza contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.