May 16, 2015 (JUBA/ADDIS ABABA) – The South Sudanese armed opposition faction of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM-IO), led by former vice-president, Riek Machar, on Saturday said they have recaptured the strategic Upper Nile state’s capital, Malakal, along with a number of previously government-held towns in response to aggression by president Salva Kiir’s government.
In a press statement released on Saturday, the office of the chairman of SPLM-IO announced that its forces under the overall command of General Johnson Olony captured the state capital of the oil-rich Upper Nile state.
“Our forces under the overall command of General Johnson Olony recaptured Upper Nile state’s capital, Malakal, on Saturday from pro-Salva Kiir’s forces. We are now in full control of the town and its surroundings,” Machar’s spokesman, James Gatdet Dak, said in a statement extended to Sudan Tribune on Saturday.
He said during the heavy fighting which started on Friday evening, the rebel forces inflicted heavy casualties on the government’s troops.
“Seven tanks and five trucks mounted with heavy machine guns plus other military equipment were left behind by the forces loyal to Salva Kiir,” he added.
The opposition leader’s spokesman further added that other strategic towns including Anakdiar and Kodok were also captured by the rebel forces following the fall of Malakal. Fighting was also ongoing in Doleib hills.
He said defeated government troops from Malakal were being pursued towards Akoka and Palluj by the press time.
He also added that General Olony, who previously commanded a Shilluk militia group allied to the government, has switched side to the rebel movement and has become one of Machar’s senior commanders in the area.
Dak explained that fighting ensued inside Malakal when government forces attacked General Olony’s forces after failing to woo him back to Juba.
He also said some of the state government’s officials had surrendered to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) inside Malakal while others were running in disarray towards Akoka and Palluj.
JUBA DECLARES GENERAL OLONY A REBEL
Meanwhile South Sudanese army has confirmed that its previous allied commander, General Johnson Olony and his forces have defected from the government and joined the rebel faction led by former vice-president, Riek Machar, ending weeks of behind the door trickery negotiations through community leadership.
Colonel Philip Aguer, spokesperson of the South Sudanese armed forces, announced on Saturday in Juba that the general command in an emergency meeting on Saturday had declared General Olony a rebel and should be treated as such.
The army spokesman said the town came under attack by the rebel forces that assisted Olony’s forces which were already stationed in the southern part of the capital.
“Malakal has since yesterday been under attack by the rebels of Riek Machar. These rebels used military boats under Johnson Olony and there was no information from him (Olony) about how the rebels got them and used them to cross the river,” Colonel Aguer told reporters in Juba on Saturday.
“What the general command has learned is that it was Olony who transported the rebels to Malakal where they carried out joint attacks on SPLA forces. This is a clear indication that he is no longer with the government and he is now treated a rebel,” he said.
The military officer said the command exhausted all the avenues given to Olony to explain in details the events that took place in Malakal town between forces under his command and those of the government.
Government had been useing the ethnic Shilluk militia forces against the rebels dominated by the Nuer ethnic group since December 2013 when the war broke out. The former allies turned enemies when General Olony’s deputy was killed by government’s backed armed youth from the ruling Dinka’s ethnic group.
Aguer however denied that the town had fallen to the hands of coalition of armed dissidents, asserting that government troops have “managed to repulse the attacks on the town.”
Information minister, Michael Makuei Lueth, also announced that Malakal town had come under attacks from the rebels allied to the former vice president Riek Machar assisted by Johnson Olony.
“The rebels of Riek Machar have attacked Malakal from all directions and the fighting is continuing even up to now. They are continuing with the offensives on the positions of our forces,” Lueth told reporters.
“It was Olony who transported the rebels across the river bank to Malakal. This means that he is not with the government. He has rebelled and will be treated as a rebel,” he added.
Upper Nile state’s information minister, Peter Hoth Tuach, told Sudan Tribune in a separate interview from outside Malakal town on Saturday that the town had come under attacks by a joint forces involving forces under the command of Johnson Olony and forces under the command of Gabriel Tanginye, who allied himself to the former vice president Riek Machar.
The minister did not however confirm or deny the capture of the state capital by the rebels and could not explain circumstances that forced him to flee and was speaking outside Malakal town.
Other sources from inside UNMISS compound in Malakal however told Sudan Tribune that the town came under full control of the rebel forces on Saturday.
IGAD CONDEMNS FIGHTING
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which mediates the peace talks between the warring parties in South Sudan condemned the resumption of hostilities in Upper Nile state. It called on both sides to the conflict to immediately cease the fighting and accept peaceful dialogue.
IGAD which condemned the government for the renewed fighting in Unity state this week blamed the Friday’s incident in Malakal on the opposition faction led by former vice-president, Riek Machar.
“The IGAD Mediation is deeply frustrated by the spread of violence to Upper Nile and strongly condemns this serious violation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) by SPLM/SPLA-IO and its allied forces and urges the warring Parties to immediately end the killings and all hostilities ravaging the country,” partly reads the statement released on Saturday.
It said preliminary reports filed by the IGAD Monitoring and Verification Team (MVT) revealed that fighting erupted in Malakal on Friday evening.
IGAD special envoys called on the warring parties to adhere to the commitment they made in the eyes of their people and the international community and resort to peaceful way of ending the crisis without further delay.