South Sudan Defense Minister Kuol Manyang on Tuesday accused rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar of wounding "many civilians" when a government position in oil-rich Upper Nile state was shelled.
Manyang said in addition to those hurt in the attacks, large numbers of civilians fled the towns of Renk and Manyo, in the north of the state, as they came under attack from rebel forces.
Upper Nile Information Minister Peter Hoth confirmed that there had been fighting in Renk and Manyo, as did the military spokesman for the rebels, Lul Ruai Koang. However, Koang said government forces had started the fighting.
“The government troops attacked our positions... and the intention was for them to advance on our positions in Wadakona, the administrative headquarters of Manyo County," Koang said. "We resisted their advances and, while they were trying to advance on our positions, they received artillery fire support and mortar fire support from Renk."
Koang said more than 50 government soldiers were killed in the clashes, which occurred on Monday. He said there were no civilian casualties.
New peace talks due
The fighting came days before government and rebel negotiators were due to reconvene in Addis Ababa for another round of talks to try to end 14 months of fighting in South Sudan. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has given the two sides until March 5 to iron out their differences over a power-sharing government and reach a final peace deal. IGAD has been mediating the South Sudan peace talks since January last year.
Manyang said he believes Machar has been planning the twin attacks in Upper Nile for some time. “The rebel leader says he will only sign a peace agreement when he is in control of a strategic town. So Renk is one of the strategic towns that he is targeting"
He claims rebels loyal to Machar this month attacked the oil towns of Bentiu, in Unity state, and Nasir, in Upper Nile. Manyang said the rebels are trying to seize as much oil-producing territory as they can before a final peace deal is reached.
South Sudan has been called the most oil-dependent economy in the world, with nearly all of the government's revenues coming from oil. The key resource is currently produced in Unity and Upper Nile states, although oil companies are also exploring in Jonglei state, which is wedged between the two.
The conflict that has been fought in the country since December 2013 has been concentrated in those three states.