ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - South Sudanese rebels said on Tuesday they have seized the capital of oil-producing Unity state, Bentiu, and warned oil firms to pack up and leave within a week.
Thousands of people have been killed and more than one million displaced since fighting erupted in South Sudan in the middle of December, triggered by a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar.
“The recapturing of Bentiu marks the first phase of liberation of oil fields from (the) anti-democratic and genocidal forces of Kiir,” rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said in a statement.
Urging all oil firms operating in government-held areas to shut their operations and evacuate their staff within a week, he said, “Failure to comply with this request, the oil companies risk forced oil shutdown and the safety of their staff.”
An oil ministry official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that three Russian oil workers were injured in a rebel attack at a newly built refinery facility in Bentiu yesterday.
Army spokesman Phillip Aguer said there was fighting in Unity state but he did not have a full report on what had happened.
“There has been serious fighting in Unity today, so far the SPLA (government) forces are still on the ground but we are still waiting for a full report to tell us exactly what has happened,” Aguer said.
The civil war in Africa’s newest state has created a humanitarian crisis in the country, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011, but has since been plagued by disorder.
The conflict has also disrupted oil production, which provides a hefty portion of the government’s revenue.
Upper Nile state is the only province pumping oil in South Sudan since the shutdown in Unity state. Output there stood steady at about 160,000 barrels a day late last month.
A ceasefire signed in January has been broken frequently and peace talks in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa have stalled often.
Negotiations have repeatedly been postponed because of a dispute over who should be represented, although IGAD, the regional bloc mediating between the two sides, says the talks are set to resume later this month.
The lack of progress has frustrated Western backers of the world’s youngest country who are pressing both sides to lay down their weapons.
The United States, Britain, the European Union and Norway have threatened measures against the country’s warring sides. Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized possible targeted sanctions against those committing human rights abuses or undermining democracy and obstructing the peace process.
Additional reporting by Carl Odera in Nairobi; Editing by Duncan Miriri and Louise Ireland