JUBA - Negotiators for the South Sudanese government and rebel forces have signed a one-month truce, an official said Monday, as the two sides continued to fight for control of two towns in the oil-producing north of the country.
A spokesman for the opposition, Hussein Mar Nyuot, told South Sudan in Focus from Addis Ababa -- where peace talks for South Sudan resumed last week -- that the two sides agreed to stop fighting for one month to allow hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians to move to safer areas, tend to their livestock and plant crops.
The proposed "month of tranquility", which will begin May 7, would also allow aid agencies to get much-needed relief supplies and food to parts of the country that have been inaccessible because of the fighting, Mar Nyuot said.
The two sides also pledged to recommit to the cessation of hostilities agreement, which has been repeatedly violated sinceit was signed at the end of January.
The opposition signed the one-month truce agreement because, "We are very concerned that our people are suffering," Mar Nyuot said.
South Sudan in Focus was unable to reach government officials for comment.
The U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, called last week for what he called a month of tranquility. He said a truce is essential to allow farmers to plant and cultivate their crops, people to "move freely, without fear of violence," and aid agencies to get relief to the more than one million South Sudanese who have fled their homes.
No matter how much aid agencies scale up their response we will always play catch-up till the violence stops: #MayMonthofTranquility needed.— Toby Lanzer (@tobylanzer) May 2, 2014
"The conflict which broke out in mid-December has put a staggering 7 million people are at risk of food insecurity across the country," Lanzer said in a statement released April 29.
"April and May are the time to plant. April is behind us; only May is left to enable people to prepare their fields and try to ensure that they have a harvest at the end of 2014," he said.
More fighting in Bentiu
As the two sides inked the agreement, fighting continued in Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, and in Nassir, in Upper Nile state. Oil exports are the backbone of the South Sudanese economy, and Unity and Upper Nile are South Sudan's two main oil-producing states.
Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) spokesman Philip Aguer said government forces retook control of both towns on Sunday after a day-long battle.
But, he said, fighting erupted again in Bentiu Monday when opposition forces launched an offensive to recapture the regional capital.
"There is fighting now around Bentiu and we are confident that the SPLA will control the situation,” he said.
But James Gatdet Dak, a spokesman for opposition forces led by Riek Machar, said government forces were pushed out of Bentiu on Monday.
"Today, at 9 a.m., our forces launched a counter-attack and flushed out the government forces. So it is the opposition forces that are now in full control of the town," Gatdet said.
In a video posted by Lanzer early last month, the U.N. humanitarian official said Bentiu is one of three regional capitals in South Sudan that have been almost completely destroyed during more than four months of fighting in the country.
The video, which contains graphic images, is available here.
Opposition launches counter-attack in Nassir
Gatdet said opposition forces have also launched a counter-attack in Nassir, but have not regained control of the town.
The fighting in both towns follows hard on the heels of a visit to Juba by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who, during his brief stop in the South Sudanese capital on Friday, called on both sides to immediately stop fighting.
The U.S. diplomat was able during his visit to convince South Sudanese President Salva Kiir to agree to meet with Machar, but the opposition leader is reportedly getting cold feet about a meeting.
On Monday, Kerry warned of sanctions and other "consequences" if South Sudan's government and rebel forces do not commit to talks aimed at ending the conflict in the young country.