BBC News

South Sudan troops 'recapture key oil city of Bentiu'

media captionThe BBC's Andrew Harding says it appears Bentiu was recaptured from rebels with just a "small amount of resistance"

South Sudan's military says it has recaptured the oil hub of Bentiu - one of just two rebel-held cities.

Army spokesman Philip Aguer said the final resistance - a tank protecting a bridge to the city - had been overcome at 14:30 local time (11:30 GMT).

Rebel leader Riek Machar told AFP his forces had withdrawn to save civilians but vowed to fight on.

The UN peacekeeping chief says the conflict has killed "very substantially in excess" of 1,000 people.

Ceasefire talks in neighbouring Ethiopia have stalled.

Bentiu is the capital of the oil-rich Unity state. The fighting, which began on 15 December, has seen South Sudan's oil output fall by about 20%.

Col Aguer told Reuters news agency: "When you control Bentiu you control all the oil fields in Unity state."

Ahead of the government advance, thousands of people fled Bentiu.

Several thousand have sought refuge in a UN base in the city, where people have been divided according to their ethnic group in order to prevent clashes.

The conflict has seen outbreaks of ethnic violence between Dinkas, the community of President Salva Kiir, and Nuers, like Mr Machar.

Although both leaders have influential backers from the other's community, the conflict has often taken an ethnic dimension.

"We withdrew from Bentiu, but it was to avoid fighting in the streets and save civilian lives. We fight on, we will continue the battle," Mr Machar, the country's vice-president until last July, told the AFP news agency.

media captionThe BBC's Alastair Leithead reports on the battle for Bentiu

The BBC's Andrew Harding in the South Sudanese capital, Juba, says the question now is whether the recapture of Bentiu will spur on negotiators in Ethiopia to reach a ceasefire agreement to avoid further fighting.

Mr Machar said his anti-government alliance was still committed to peace talks.

Earlier, Col Aguer urged all civilians to leave Bentiu to avoid being caught in the crossfire.

He did not give any casualty figures but said that fighters on both sides had been killed.

The colonel told the Associated Press news agency that rebel forces had "destroyed'' the town, looting the bank, stealing food and setting the market on fire.

Medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said its facilities in Bentiu were looted on Thursday, putting its operations in the region in jeopardy.

"MSF won't be able to resume its much-needed operations in Bentiu until the security of our patients, staff and facilities is guaranteed," MSF South Sudan head Raphael Georgeu said in a statement.

UN envoy in South Sudan Toby Lanzer, earlier tweeted from Bentiu that UN peacekeepers had built up defences at the UN base to protect civilians.

Swimming under gunfire

Col Aguer said that from Friday afternoon, all the government forces would be focused on recapturing Bor - the other city under rebel control.

On Thursday, people fleeing Bor told AFP that gunmen had shot dead fleeing civilians, torched entire villages and looted crops.

media captionThe BBC outlines the background to South Sudan's crisis - in 60 seconds.
image copyrightAFP
image captionThe army has also been divided along ethnic lines
image captionSome 2,000 South Sudanese are crossing to Uganda each day

One cattle herder told of swimming across the River Nile while being shot at.

"They [the attackers] had a machine gun raised up on a sandbank, and they fired and fired and fired as we swam," Gabriel Bol told AFP.

"The bullets were hitting the water, but we knew we could not stop or they'd shoot us."

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous on Thursday night told the UN Security Council that more than 250,000 had fled their homes because of the conflict.

South Sudan is the world's newest state. It became independent in 2011 after seceding from Sudan.

image captionFighting 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 captionSudan'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 captionBoth 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 captionThe 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 captionAfter 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 captionJust 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 captionAlmost 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%).

Related Topics

  • South Sudan