South Sudanese rebels say they have seized an oil-producing center. The government has branded this most recent assault a flagrant breach of a ceasefire signed in January.
On Tuesday, rebels struck a major oil town for the first time since a January 23 ceasefire deal. Both camps have repeatedly accused the other of breaking the accord.
"It is a flagrant violation of the cessation of hostilities agreement signed by both sides," South Sudan's information minister, Michael Makuei, told the news agency Reuters on Tuesday. "We have been calling on the envoys to expedite the establishment of the monitoring mechanism but nothing has happened so far."
Gathoth Gatkuoth, commander for rebel forces in Upper Nile and a close ally of former vice president and insurgent leader Riek Machar, said on Tuesday that his forces had struck Malakal in the morning and swiftly retaken the town. The government has denied the rebels' claim that they now control Malakal, on the fringes of a key oil-producing area in the country's northeast. However, officials have not disputed the claim either.
"It is too early to tell who is in control of the town," army spokesman Philip Aguer told the German news agency DPA.
Situated on the banks of the White Nile over 650 kilometers (400 miles) north of South Sudan's capital, Juba, Malakal first fell to rebels after fighting - triggered by a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Machar, sacked in July - broke out in mid-December. Last month, government forces recaptured Malakal, which lies about 140 kilometers from Paloch, an oil complex and home to a key crude-processing facility.
South Sudan's government has announced that it already cut oil production by one-fifth, to 200,000 barrels per day. Rebel control of Malakal could raise concerns over South Sudan's ability to maintain even that rate of output.
By attacking Malakal, rebels may have hoped to strengthen their hand before talks resume in Ethiopia. The talks were scheduled to resume last week but held up by demands that the government release prisoners and the Ugandan military, which has supported Kiir's army, withdraw from South Sudan.
Since fighting began in South Sudan two months ago, it has led to the deaths of thousands of people and caused more than 800,000 to flee their homes. UN officials and rights groups have reported a wave of atrocities committed by both sides, including massacres, rape, child soldier recruitment and the looting of humanitarian aid supplies.
Joe Contreras, a UN spokesman in South Sudan, said a camp in Malakal where up to 27,000 people displaced in the conflict had sought shelter fell into the path of Tuesday's crossfire, adding to anxieties within the compound.
mkg/kms (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)