The South Sudan town of Malakal reportedly changed hands for the fifth time since fighting erupted in the young country in December, as government forces said they recaptured the Upper Nile state capital from rebels on Thursday.
SPLA Brigadier General Malak Ayuen Ajok said the army sustained light losses, with one soldier killed and two wounded in the latest fight for the town. As the capital of the largest oil-producing state in South Sudan, Malakal is of strategic and psychological importance.
Ayuen was unable to confirm opposition casualties but said the rebels have fled and are headed toward the eastern part of the state, with SPLA forces in pursuit.
But Lul Ruai Koang, a spokesman for the opposition forces, insisted that the rebels still control parts of Malakal and had merely made a strategic withdrawal from parts of the town that were attacked by government troops.
"They entered Malakal from the north and they are in the northern part," he said.
“We just made a deliberate pull-back, an organized one, and we are in the southern part and also the eastern part," Koang said.
Ayuen called on residents and Upper Nile state officials, who had relocated the state's administrative offices to the town of Renk while the fighting devestated the state capital, to return to Malakal "now that the rebels have been chased away."
“There is no reason why they should not come back to their town and to their houses. They will be protected this time," he said.
United Nations peacekeepers and international aid agency staff said after fighting broke out in Malakal last month that most civilians had fled and the town had been destroyed.
"Probably very few civilians are left in the town. There is a lot of destruction and even they could see some dead bodies," Oxfam country director Jose Barahona told VOA in February, after the NGO pulled its staff out of Malakal.