South Sudan: Under attack outside Bor

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Media captionFootage shows the moment a BBC crew was caught in the middle of an ambush in South Sudan

Travelling with a convoy of government troops in South Sudan seeking to retake the rebel-held town of Bor, the BBC's Alastair Leithead witnesses the forces coming under attack.

The general strode out confidently, leading his men on foot straight up the dusty, pot-holed track to Bor, South Sudan's most contested city.

Reinforcements were arriving by truck and by boat, and as the sun rose hundreds of soldiers chanting war songs marched at a dusty camp on the banks of the Nile.

Morale was high.

We would be "eating dinner, if not lunch" in the city the rebels had held for days, we were told.

But progress was slow as the convoy moved along the road to Bor, and within 50km (30km) of the city we started to see the evidence of recent fighting.

Bodies on the road, burned out tanks, abandoned villages and military barracks, which both look very similar.

As the convoy staggered and swayed through the pot holes, suddenly things started happening ahead - cars turned around, troops took cover.


There was a burst of firing ahead and then a barrage of rockets fired out into the thick bush beside the road.

It was after the dust had settled that the general decided to walk - leading a column of vehicles to the next camp along the road.

Image caption The commanding general (centre) seemed confident the road was clear
Image caption Reinforcements for the government troops arrived by boat singing war songs

Then it happened again.

This time it was an attack from the front and an ambush from the side, which sent troops into a panic.

Many opened fire - some were shot perhaps by their own side.

One young soldier near us had been hit - the bullet grazed his back and took a chunk out of his neck.

We called for medics, but there were none - we used a field dressing to stop the bleeding and put him in the shade until he could be moved.

He was not critically injured, but with an eight-hour drive down an unpredictable road it was going to be a long journey by boat up the Nile, with the other injured troops.

Blow to morale

There were bodies too.

Among them was a very senior general - a man known for his determination to lead from the front - and his death was a blow to morale.

He was shot and injured in the ambush and was being driven back for help when the car was peppered with bullets. He and at least two other soldiers died.

A tank rolled up to secure a village where three long boats landed - each carrying perhaps 150 soldiers.

They were also chanting South Sudanese war songs as they jumped ashore.

While the generals were deciding the next step and still promising we would soon be in Bor, a third attack was launched.

Panic quickly spread across the camp as troops ran back down the road in disarray.

Image caption Both sides in the conflict have heavy weapons
Image caption South Sudan is the world's newest nation

As cars accelerated over the potholes, some soldiers were thrown from the back and at least one was run over.

Guns were thrown down or left and the generals drove back to a rear position miles down the road.

As the sun set we headed south away from the fighting - risking poor roads in the dark rather than the chaos of a night time ambush.

When we hear of "rebel soldiers", the image is perhaps different from the situation on the ground - 5,000 regular troops switched sides on ethnic grounds and now support the rebels.

It is they, and thousands more armed civilians from the Nuer tribal militia, that defend Bor.

This is the army fighting the army with tanks and heavy weapons - and tens of thousands of people here have been forced to flee across the Nile and are now in need of food and clean water.

The longer the talks go on without a ceasefire the greater the incentive for both sides to try and gain the military upper hand and win more chips to bargain with.

Image caption Fighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in mid-December. It followed a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar. The squabble has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians' political bases are often ethnic.
Image caption Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Image caption Both Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north
Image caption The two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
Image caption After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan is the world's newest country - and one of its poorest. Figures from 2010 show some 69% of households now have access to clean water - up from 48% in 2006. However, just 2% of households have water on the premises.
Image caption Just 29% of children attend primary school in South Sudan - however this is also an improvement on the 16% recorded in 2006. About 32% of primary-age boys attend, while just 25% of girls do. Overall, 64% of children who begin primary school reach the last grade.
Image caption Almost 28% of children under the age of five in South Sudan are moderately or severely underweight - this compares with the 33% recorded in 2006. Unity state has the highest proportion of children suffering malnourishment (46%), while Central Equatoria has the lowest (17%).

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