JUBA - Anti-government forces in South Sudan have seized control of the strategic town of Malakal in the country's largest oil-producing state, presidential press secretary Ateny Wek Ateny said Friday.
Ateny told reporters in Juba that government forces had withdrawn to positions around four kilometers (2.5 miles) south of the northern town after "the rebels launched an attack on Malakal" on Tuesday.
He slammed the anti-government side for what he said was a clear violation of a cessation of hostilities agreement signed at the end of last month but said the government delegation at a new round of peace talks in Addis Ababa will not pull out of the negotiating process.
"General Salva Kiir Mayardit instructed our mediators to continue to negotiate peace in Addis Ababa," Ateny said.
"Although the talks have not resumed face-to-face, it is clear that the government is still willing to negotiate peace with the rebels," he said.
Opposition forces have denied that they restarted the fighting in Malakal this week, saying they were defending themselves after government forces attacked their positions in the town earlier this week.
A United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) patrol reported seeing government and opposition forces in the streets of the town, as well as armed youths, a U.N. spokesman told reporters in New York.
The patrol reported seeing more than 50 bodies in various parts of the town, which UNMISS said had been looted and was empty of civilians.
On Thursday, U.N. officials said 10 people, all of them civilians, died of injuries sustained in the fighting in the town and an outbreak of violence inside the U.N. base, where tens of thousands are sheltering.
UNMISS said sporadic fighting was continuing Friday near its compound in Malakal, which as the capital of the state that produces around 85 percent of South Sudan's oil, has been a key battleground in the unrest that started in Juba in mid-December and quickly spread around the country.
Oil production has continued in Upper Nile during the conflict, but with production cut off in the other oil state, Unity, overall crude output in South Sudan has fallen.
A Petroleum Ministry official told Reuters news agency that oil production had fallen to about 170,000 barrels per day even before the new round of fighting in Malakal. Prior to the conflict breaking out in December, South Sudan's oil output was around 250,000 barrels per day.