JUBA (Reuters) - South Sudan government forces and rebel troops clashed in oil-rich Unity State on Monday, President Salva Kiir said, days before the two sides are to hold talks to end a 10-month conflict that has ravaged the world’s youngest nation.
Kiir accused the rebels on Monday of violating a ceasefire agreed in May and warned of more attacks by forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar. Rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang confirmed fighting occurred near the Unity State capital, Bentiu, but denied it was instigated by Machar’s troops.
More than 1 million people in South Sudan have fled their homes since December, when fighting erupted between troops backing Kiir and soldiers loyal to Machar. The European Union and the United States have sanctioned commanders from both sides for violating a ceasefire that was signed in January but swiftly crumbled.
“There is fighting in Bentiu and we also expect such action to erupt in different parts of Malakal,” Kiir told governors in the capital Juba. Malakal is the capital of Upper Nile State, South Sudan’s only other oil-producing region.
There are conflicting reports as to the location of fighting in the Unity State. United Nations spokesman Joe Contreras said the clashes took place about 30km north of Bentiu, but the state capital was largely quiet.
The violence between the two sides, triggered by a power struggle between the Kiir and Machar, has often followed ethnic faultlines, pitting Kiir’s Dinka against Machar’s Nuer. Each side has frequently accused the other of ceasefire violations.
Rebel spokesman Koang dismissed Kiir’s allegations that the rebels were preparing to attack Malakal, a key trading town that has changed hands about six times since the conflict started.
“He (Kiir) is only trying to defend his forces by accusing us first, so that when he launches attacks he will blame us instead,” Koang said.
The two sides are due to hold a fresh round of talks in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa later this week, though the start date is uncertain yet.
Army spokesman Philip Aguer told Reuters the opposition troops were moving towards the oil fields in the Unity State, something the rebels deny doing.
Unity State oil fields were damaged during previous bouts of fighting, curtailing output, which stands at about 160,000 barrels per day.
Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho; writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by George Obulutsa, Larry King