Juba, Dec. 22 (Reuters): South Sudan said it has sent more soldiers to retake the flashpoint town of Bor from rebels and kept control of oilfields as fighting spread to a neighbouring state in a conflict that has raised fears of collapsing into an ethnic civil war.
Foreign minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said the army in Bor had spotted former Vice-President Riek Machar — the man the government accuses of starting the fighting in Africa’s newest country — on the battlefield, but he had escaped by boat.
It was impossible to verify the minister’s account independently and Machar could not be reached for comment. There have been varying reports of his whereabouts since the fighting started.
Clashes between rival groups of soldiers in capital Juba a week ago have spread across the landlocked and impoverished country, which won its independence from Sudan in 2011 with support from successive US administrations.
The army acknowledged losing Bor in the northern Jonglei state on Wednesday, and a day later the United Nations said oil workers had taken refuge in its bases in neighbouring Unity.
International and regional powers have urged both sides to stop fighting, fearing for the stability of an already fragile surrounding region that includes some of Africa’s most promising economies, including Kenya and Ethiopia.
President Salva Kiir, from South Sudan’s Dinka ethnic group, accused Machar, a Nuer who he dismissed in July, of trying to launch a coup.
Machar dismissed the charge but has since told the BBC and other outlets that he is commanding troops fighting the government.
The UN peacekeeping mission in the country has started relocating its non-essential staff. Three US aircraft came under fire from unidentified forces yesterday while trying to evacuate Americans from the conflict. The US military said four of its members were wounded in the attacks.