JUBA: Rebels in South Sudan battled government forces Thursday in a renewed offensive targeting the young nation’s key oil fields, the army said, amid famine warnings by the United Nations.
Fighters loyal to rebel chief Riek Machar recaptured the town of Bentiu on Tuesday, the state capital of oil-producing Unity, with UN peacekeepers reporting corpses littering the streets.
South Sudan’s army said fighting was ongoing Thursday as it tried to counterattack.
“Bentiu is still under the hands of the rebels but we are closing in,” army spokesman Philip Auger told AFP. “There is still fighting.”
The surge in fighting in the four-month-long conflict comes amid warnings by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that more than one million people are at risk of famine in the war-torn country.
Peacekeepers from the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) patrolling the rebel-held state capital said they had seen between 35 and 40 bodies along the roadside, the majority in military uniform.
“UNMISS condemns these renewed hostilities in the strongest possible terms”, the mission said in a statement, saying it was “gravely concerned” at the “serious violations” of a broken ceasefire deal inked in January.
“Fighting will only exacerbate an already dire situation,” it added.
Bentiu, one of the most bitterly contested regions in the war, is the first major settlement to have been retaken in a fresh offensive by forces of rebel leader Riek Machar, a former vice-president.
– Children starving –
The conflict in South Sudan has left thousands dead and forced around a million people to flee their homes since fighting broke out on December 15 in the capital Juba before spreading to other states in the oil-rich nation.
Over 12,000 civilians are now sheltering inside the UN base in Bentiu, protected by peacekeepers, with one person wounded inside the camp as bullets hit it from a nearby firefight.
Rebels overran the town on Tuesday, with the army saying it was preparing a counterattack to take it back.
Rebels had previously seized Bentiu in December at the beginning of the conflict, but were chased out a month later.
On Monday, UN peacekeepers rescued 10 employees from the Russian Safinat company as rebels attacked the oil refinery they were constructing north of Bentiu, including Russian, Ukranian and Kenyan citizens.
Five were wounded in the fighting.
The fighting is between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir against mutinous troops who sided with Machar, sacked as vice-president in 2013.
The conflict has also taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir’s Dinka tribe against militia forces from Machar’s Nuer people.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF has warned that the conflict has triggered a serious risk of famine that will kill up to 50,000 children within months if immediate action is not taken.
Over 3.7 million people are in dire need of food aid, many of them being forced to eat “famine foods” such as grasses and leaves, UNICEF said, which flew in Thursday its fourth cargo airplane loaded with special therapeutic food for malnourished children.
“Worse is yet to come,” UNICEF chief in South Sudan Jonathan Veitch said in a statement Thursday.
“If conflict continues, and farmers miss the planting season, we will see child malnutrition on a scale never before experienced here.”