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PRETORIA, January 15. /ITAR-TASS/. South Sudanese insurgents and government troops are locked in fierce fighting for Malakal, the capital of the country’s oil-rich Upper Nile state.
Rebels led by former deputy president Riek Machar have made several attempts to take this strategic city in the northwest of the country.
“Heavy fighting is underway in Malakal,” army spokesperson Philip Aguer said on Wednesday, January 15.
The United Nations reported tank battles in the streets of Malakal.
Rebels’ representative Lul Ruai Kong said Machar’s forces had already taken Malakal, which had changed hands twice.
However Aguer denied these assertions. “It’s not over yet. Fighting is going on,” he said.
Fresh fighting in the world’s newest country erupted on December 15, 2013, when President Kiir said soldiers loyal to Machar, dismissed from office in July of last year, had launched an attempted coup. Kiir belongs to the Dinka ethnic group and Machar to the Lou Nuer, and the conflict has been increasingly marked by reports of ethnically targeted violence, the U.N. said.
Thousands of people are estimated to have died in the violence and some 180,000 others have been driven from their homes, up to 75,000 of them seeking refuge on UNMISS bases, which has been authorised by the U.N. Security Council to almost double its armed strength to nearly 14,000 in an effort to protect civilians.
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir on January 2 introduced a state of emergency in two states controlled by rebels led by former deputy president Riek Machar.
The state of emergency was imposed in the states of Jonglei and Unity. On January 1, rebels took Jonglei’s capital of Bor, 200 km of Juba, the capital of the country. They have also been controlling Unity’s capital of Bentiu since December 15, 2013, when the conflict erupted.
The government has admitted that Bor, which has changed hands several times over the two weeks of fighting, has been retaken by the rebels again.
The clashes that started in Juba have since then spread to six of the ten states.
Red Cross said that about 70,000 people in Jonglei were crossing the White Nile in order to get to the neighbouring state of Lakes.
According to the United Nations, about 400,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in South Sudan, including about 65,000 at the UNMISS bases. A further 42,800 South Sudanese have fled to neighbouring countries including Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda — 32,000 of them in Uganda alone.
Ladsous said that more than 1,000 people have been killed in South Sudan and confirmed that the human rights situation in that country remained “very serious.”
Humanitarian organisations report that about 10,000 people have been killed.
The government of South Sudan and rebels began direct talks in the capital of Ethiopia on January 5. Cessation of hostilities, opening humanitarian corridors, the issue of political prisoners, and protection of civilians have formed the main agenda of the talks.
“It is a step in the right direction,” Hilde Johnson, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNMISS, who also heads the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), said, adding that negotiations in Addis Ababa had to be accompanied by a deeper process that focuses on national reconciliation, and reconciliation between the communities which have not healed since South Sudan won independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war.
“The country is at a crossroads. It’s at the fork in the road,” Johnson said. “But it can still be saved from further major escalations of violence. It is up to the leaders of this country and the two parties.”
U.N. officials have repeatedly called for a cessation of violence and a political solution to the conflict, including accountability for grave human rights violations.
International aid agencies will need 166 million U.S. dollars to respond to immediate needs until March, Johnson noted, calling for assistance from donors, the U.N. said.
The United Nations has released 15 million U.S. dollars from its humanitarian rapid response fund for critical relief operations in South Sudan, where over 230,000 people have been driven from their homes since fighting erupted between government and opposition forces nearly a month ago.
“Conditions for the South Sudanese fleeing hostilities in their country are getting worse by the day,” U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos said in announcing the allocation from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) on January 8.
“With this CERF funding, U.N. humanitarian agencies will be better able to meet the needs of people desperately seeking shelter and safety,” she said.
CERF, established by the U.N. General Assembly seven years ago, has grown to become one of the largest and most reliable sources of humanitarian funding. Since 2006, it has disbursed more than 3.2 billion U.S. dollars to emergencies in 88 countries, with donors pledging 404.6 million U.S. dollars last month for 2014. CERF allocated almost 482 million U.S. dollars in 2013, 11.6 million U.S. dollars of it for South Sudan.
Since the country gained independence in July 2011, aid agencies have received almost 74.4 million U.S. dollars from CERF for critical assistance, including food, clean water, shelter and health services.