JUBA - Rebels loyal to former South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar said Monday they killed scores of government soldiers and destroyed military equipment in fierce clashes in the Upper Nile oil town of Nassir.
“What I heard from the military governor this morning is that over 100 government soldiers were killed in the battle for control of Nassir. We destroyed three armored personnel carriers," opposition military spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said.
The South Sudanese army denied that Nassir has fallen to the rebels.
Army Chief of Staff Paul Malong Awan said the fighting in Nassir was another violation by the opposition of the cessation of hostilities agreement signed in January and recommitted to by both sides since then. He said government troops are still committed to the ceasefire and only responded to an attack on Nassir by the rebels on Sunday, in self-defense.
UNMISS calls new unrest 'deplorable'
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) called the fighting the most serious resumption of hostilities since on May 9, when President Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar met in the Ethiopian capital and recommitted to the cessation of hostilities agreement.
UNMISS spokesman Joseph Contreras blamed rebels loyal to Machar for the attack on Nassir. He said many of the opposition fighters were defectors from the SPLA.
Contreras called the attack "deplorable," especially coming "at a time when intensive efforts are under way by mediators of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to convince all parties to resume the suspended peace talks in Addis Ababa."
The rebels denied that they started the fighting in Nassir or were the first to violate the cessation of hostilities agreement. Instead, Koang accused UNMISS and IGAD of not doing their work effectively and not standing up to the government, which he said has repeatedly broken the ceasefire.
IGAD has been brokering peace talks for South Sudan since January. The regional bloc has struggled to get the talks back on track after they stalled last month.
In a statement issued Sunday, IGAD condemned what it called "the unfortunate attack by the SPLM/A–In Opposition in Nasir on government positions."
"It is regrettable that this incident has come at a time when the mediation team just concluded consultations with the leadership of the SPLM/A–In Opposition in Addis Ababa, on how to operationalize the signed Agreements and move the peace process forward," IGAD said.