South Sudan army says retakes town from rebels in east

JUBA Mon May 20, 2013 8:31am EDT

JUBA (Reuters) - South Sudan's army has retaken an eastern town captured by rebels two weeks ago, a military spokesman said on Monday, in a conflict that has uprooted thousands of people and hampered government plans to explore for oil.

Army spokesman Philip Aguer said four soldiers and a dozen rebels were killed during a brief battle on Sunday to recapture Boma town in Jonglei state, where the government wants to search for oil with the help of France's Total.

"The SPLA (army) restored order and control of Boma yesterday. I was there myself," Aguer told Reuters.

But Peter Konyi Kubrin, a spokesman for rebels also known as the South Sudan Democratic Army, denied they had lost the town.

Since winning independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan has been struggling to impose its authority across vast swathes of territory awash with weapons after decades of civil war with Khartoum ended in a peace deal in 2005.

Rebel leader David Yau Yau, a former theology student, raised a rebellion in 2010 after failing to win a seat in local elections. He accepted an amnesty in 2011 only to take up arms again a year later to end what his group's manifesto calls corruption and the unfair dominance of the ruling party.

The United States and several European powers urged the government to find a political solution to the conflict.

"We stress that the worsening situation in Jonglei state requires a political and not a military solution," said a statement by several Western embassies in the capital Juba.

The embassies said they were alarmed by the recent looting of private homes and compounds of foreign aid groups in Pibor, another town in Jonglei, which the army has blamed on state wildlife officers who defected to the rebels.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said their Pibor hospital had been systematically destroyed recently, depriving around 100,000 people of access to healthcare.

Over 1,600 people have been killed in violence in Jonglei, largely though inter-ethnic cattle raiding communities, since South Sudan gained independence, the United Nations says.

(Editing by Ulf Laessing and Mike Collett-White)