South Sudan’s army and rebels have accused each other of responsibility for fresh fighting in the north-east despite a peace agreement to end a brutal 20-month civil war.
The renewed clashes came after the pact, brokered by the regional eight-nation Igad bloc and the United Nations, the African Union, China, Britain, Norway and the United States, provided for a permanent ceasefire supposed to enter into force on Saturday.
“Riek Machar’s rebels attacked Malakal yesterday (Friday),” and the “assault on Malakal resumed this (Saturday) morning,” army spokesman Colonel Philip Aguer said at a news conference.
“That’s untrue, their forces attacked us near Malakal,” rebel spokesman James Gatdet Dak told AFP, referring to the strategic northeastern town and a gateway to the country’s last remaining major oil fields.
“They wanted to seize the area before the ceasefire comes into effect,” he said.
It was not immediately clear if the ceasefire had entered into force in the world’s newest nation, which broke away from Sudan four years ago.
Dak said it was supposed to take effect at midnight.
The accord, signed by rebel leader Machar on August 17 and the government only on Wednesday, gave a 72-hour deadline for a permanent cessation of hostilities.
Col Aguer said the rebels attacked Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile, overnight “using mortars and machineguns” and resumed shelling on Saturday.
He said one government soldier was wounded, adding: “Though the army is committed to the spirit of peace and welcome the internationally supported peace initiative, (it has) all the rights for self defence and for protection of Malakal Town and the surrounding areas.”
South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused Dr Machar, his former deputy, of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings across the country that has split the poverty-stricken, landlocked nation along ethnic lines.
Facing the threat of international sanctions, President Kiir finally signed the deal this week, but annexed a list of reservations that he said would have to be addressed for it to take hold.
Dr Machar, for his part, said the reservations cast “doubts” on the government’s commitment.
The UN Security Council on Friday called for the ceasefire to begin immediately and threatened sanctions against those who undermine the accord.
Dr Machar’s spokesman, Nyarji Roman, said the former vice-president had ordered his rebel troops to lay down their arms in line with the accord. The rebel leader “gave a declaration of a permanent ceasefire to his troops last night,” the spokesman told AFP.
Mr Kiir’s spokesman, Ateny Wek Ateny, told AFP on Friday the president had ordered the entire army “to stop shooting and remain in their barracks where they are, but they can shoot in self-defence once attacked”.
Two powerful rebel generals, Peter Gadet and Gathoth Gatkuoth, split from Dr Machar earlier this month, accusing him of seeking power for himself.
The government has said the split is a key reason it doubts the peace deal can be effective.
The signed deal gives the rebels the post of first vice-president, which means that Dr Machar would likely return to the job he was sacked from, an event which put the country on the path to war.
But a 12-page government list of reservations calls this a “humiliation” and a “reward for rebellion”, and insists the new post must be on an equal footing with the current vice-president, whose office remains in place.