South Sudan: Under attack outside Bor
- 6 January 2014
- From the section Africa
Travelling with a convoy of government troops in South Sudan seeking to retake the rebel-held town of Bor, the BBC's Alastair Leithead witnesses the forces coming under attack.
The general strode out confidently, leading his men on foot straight up the dusty, pot-holed track to Bor, South Sudan's most contested city.
Reinforcements were arriving by truck and by boat, and as the sun rose hundreds of soldiers chanting war songs marched at a dusty camp on the banks of the Nile.
Morale was high.
We would be "eating dinner, if not lunch" in the city the rebels had held for days, we were told.
But progress was slow as the convoy moved along the road to Bor, and within 50km (30km) of the city we started to see the evidence of recent fighting.
Bodies on the road, burned out tanks, abandoned villages and military barracks, which both look very similar.
As the convoy staggered and swayed through the pot holes, suddenly things started happening ahead - cars turned around, troops took cover.
There was a burst of firing ahead and then a barrage of rockets fired out into the thick bush beside the road.
It was after the dust had settled that the general decided to walk - leading a column of vehicles to the next camp along the road.
Then it happened again.
This time it was an attack from the front and an ambush from the side, which sent troops into a panic.
Many opened fire - some were shot perhaps by their own side.
One young soldier near us had been hit - the bullet grazed his back and took a chunk out of his neck.
We called for medics, but there were none - we used a field dressing to stop the bleeding and put him in the shade until he could be moved.
He was not critically injured, but with an eight-hour drive down an unpredictable road it was going to be a long journey by boat up the Nile, with the other injured troops.
Blow to morale
There were bodies too.
Among them was a very senior general - a man known for his determination to lead from the front - and his death was a blow to morale.
He was shot and injured in the ambush and was being driven back for help when the car was peppered with bullets. He and at least two other soldiers died.
A tank rolled up to secure a village where three long boats landed - each carrying perhaps 150 soldiers.
They were also chanting South Sudanese war songs as they jumped ashore.
While the generals were deciding the next step and still promising we would soon be in Bor, a third attack was launched.
Panic quickly spread across the camp as troops ran back down the road in disarray.
As cars accelerated over the potholes, some soldiers were thrown from the back and at least one was run over.
Guns were thrown down or left and the generals drove back to a rear position miles down the road.
As the sun set we headed south away from the fighting - risking poor roads in the dark rather than the chaos of a night time ambush.
When we hear of "rebel soldiers", the image is perhaps different from the situation on the ground - 5,000 regular troops switched sides on ethnic grounds and now support the rebels.
It is they, and thousands more armed civilians from the Nuer tribal militia, that defend Bor.
This is the army fighting the army with tanks and heavy weapons - and tens of thousands of people here have been forced to flee across the Nile and are now in need of food and clean water.
The longer the talks go on without a ceasefire the greater the incentive for both sides to try and gain the military upper hand and win more chips to bargain with.