JUBA - South Sudanese President Salva Kiir has fired his army chief and the head of military intelligence, days after key towns in oil-producing Unity state were captured by opposition forces and fresh fighting flared up in the flashpoint states of Jonglei and Upper Nile.
In a presidential decree read on state television late Wednesday, Kiir announced that he has replaced his army chief of staff, General James Hoth Mai, with the Northern Bahr el Ghazal state governor, Paul Malong Awan, and named General Marial Nour Jok the new head of military intelligence replacing Major General Mac Paul Kuol.
No reasons were given for the sudden firings, which came as fighting continued in parts of the country, including Unity and the main oil-producing state, Upper Nile.
Opposition forces captured Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, last week and on Monday they claimed they had seized the town of Mayom, also in Unity state.
But army spokesman, Colonel Philip Aguer, said government troops were still fighting for control of Mayom.
Rebels claim control of town near Palouge
Both sides also claimed to be in control of the strategic town of Renk in Upper Nile, the state where most of South Sudan's oil is produced.
Opposition spokesman James Gatdet Dak said opposition forces seized control of Renk on Wednesday and were continuing their push into government-held territory in Upper Nile.
“We still maintain control of Renk and our forces are moving toward Palouge, which is the main oil field in Upper Nile state,” the opposition spokesman said.
"The reports that we are receiving from the ground is that the government is losing ground," Gatdet added.
But Aguer insisted the SPLA was still in control in Renk.
"The rebels were fighting inside Renk," said Aguer. "They did not overtake it, but they managed to infiltrate and some defectors from the police helped them but they were flushed out from the town by the SPLA forces."
"So, since yesterday, Renk is in the control of the SPLA forces,” he said.
Government vows to hold oil fields
Aguer vowed that government forces would stand in the way of a rebel takeover of South Sudan's oil fields.
"That is the dream of Riek Machar and his forces -- to either destroy the oil industry or control it or divert it. To whom, we don’t know," Aguer said.
"But the SPLA ... is there in Palouge, in Adar and all the other oil fields, and we will protect the oil fields. There is no doubt about that.”
The World Bank has described South Sudan as "the most oil-dependent country in the world." Oil accounts for almost all of the country's exports and around 80 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), or the market value of all goods and services produced in a country in a year.
The opposition has said the government is using oil revenues to buy weapons, and has reportedly launched an offensive to seize control of the country's oil fields and production facilities to prevent this from happening.