South Sudan’s army said on Wednesday that it had lost contact with its troops in the key oil hub of Malakal following a major offensive by rebels.
The rebels have said they now control the northeastern town after launching an assault on Tuesday, throwing into doubt a ceasefire agreement signed in Ethiopia last month. “I have no contact with the command in Malakal,” army spokesman Philip Aguer told AFP.
According to aid sources, Malakal’s airport was closed on Tuesday evening and rebels were inside the town -- although it was unclear if they had total control over the dusty settlement on the banks of the White Nile.
“There was the sound of heavy shelling this morning and then sporadic shooting. It seems the opposition control a part of the town and the airport, but the government soldiers are still fighting,” an aid source said.
Rebel military spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said opposition fighters were “chasing” government soldiers into bush, adding that it was government soldiers who attacked first and violated the truce.
The UN said 10 people had been killed on Tuesday in “inter-communal clashes” within a peacekeeping base in Malakal, where more than 20,000 people have been sheltering from the fighting.
Rebel fighters have also been reported to be patrolling outside the UN camp, taunting people from rival ethnic groups. “Both parties to this conflict must respect the inviolability of the premises and facilities of the UN,” the UN mission in South Sudan said in a statement.