South Sudanese government forces have said they have recaptured the strategic town of Bor from rebel forces. Meanwhile negotiators have yet to reach a deal to end over five weeks of fighting.
Government troops backed by Ugandan forces seized the flashpoint town following days of fierce fighting against thousands of rebel militia, South Sudan's army spokesman Philip Aguer said Saturday.
"Today the gallant SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army] forces entered Bor, they have defeated more than 15,000 forces of [rebel leader] Riek Machar and frustrated his plans to attack Juba and install himself as the ruler of South Sudan," Aguer told reporters in the capital Juba.
He added that the battle had left "many dead" although did not specify numbers.
Uganda, which for years backed the SPLA in its conflict against Sudan's government before the south declared independence in 2011, has sent its troops to support President Salva Kiir. A spokesman said the Ugandan People's Defence Force was behind the success at Bor, the capital of restive Jonglei state.
Bor has changed hands four times since fighting between Kiir's forces and rebels loyal to ousted Vice-President Riek Machar began five weeks ago. Rebels had previously threatened to use the town as a launch pad for a march on Juba.
A rebel military spokesman confirmed that Bor was back in the hands of government forces, but insisted that the rebels had made a "tactical withdrawal" in order to reorganize, news agency AFP reported.
"It is not a big issue. There are 11 counties in Jonglei state we are in control of nine counties. So if we are in control of nine counties, why should we waste our time on just one small county without even a population? There is no population in Bor, the entire population fled," he said.
Tens of thousands of civilians have left the town, which is said to have been largely destroyed.
Peace talks offer glimmer of hope
Government and rebel representatives have been based in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa for the past two weeks for negotiations aimed at ending violence which has pitted President Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer community.
The government has said it is optimistic a ceasefire will soon be agreed - the first sign that the stalled talks are beginning to make progress.
"The government is ready to sign a cessation of hostilities tomorrow or on Monday. The chief negotiator had come here to consult on the conditions imposed by the rebels," President Kiir's spokesman said Saturday.
Meanwhile top rebel spokesman Mabior Garang said rebels had accepted a draft deal presented by IGAD, the East African bloc that is brokering the talks.
"We have seen a draft agreement for a cessation of hostilities that we could sign, but we are waiting for our counterparts [the government] to agree," Garang said. He warned, however, doubt remained about the government's "sincerity."
"They might be trying to improve their situation on the ground militarily before we reach an agreement," he added.
UN reports mass atrocities
According to UN figures thousands of people have been killed and more than half a million have been forced to flee their homes since the conflict took hold.
On Friday The UN’s top humanitarian official announced evidence of mass atrocities by both sides of the conflict following a visit to the country.
Assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, said child soldiers were increasingly being used. He also cited reports of mass killings, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions and sexual violence.
He added that the unrest could now be classified as an "internal armed conflict," meaning that war crimes law applies. He called for a fact-finding commission to investigate atrocities and hold those responsible accountable.
ccp/hc (AFP, Reuters)