South Sudan troops 'recapture key oil city of Bentiu'

The BBC's Andrew Harding says it appears Bentiu was recaptured from rebels with just a "small amount of resistance"

South Sudan's military says it has recaptured the oil hub of Bentiu - one of just two rebel-held cities.

Army spokesman Philip Aguer said the final resistance - a tank protecting a bridge to the city - had been overcome at 14:30 local time (11:30 GMT).

Rebel leader Riek Machar told AFP his forces had withdrawn to save civilians but vowed to fight on.

The UN peacekeeping chief says the conflict has killed "very substantially in excess" of 1,000 people.

Analysis

Late last year, in the chaotic early days of his rebellion, Riek Machar was in a pretty strong position. He had taken the state capitals Bor and Bentiu, and oilfields in Unity state near Bentiu. His rebels were also fighting for control of Malakal, the gateway to the Upper Nile oilfields.

Losing towns was embarrassing for President Salva Kiir, and oil is critical to South Sudan's economy. However, the government held on to Malakal, and has now regained Bentiu. It seems likely it will recapture the Unity state oilfields too.

All this is a boost to President Kiir, and significantly weakens Mr Machar's hand. He will find it harder to push through his demands at the Addis Ababa talks, and it is now less likely that other soldiers will defect to the rebel cause.

Nevertheless he will keep fighting, and momentum moves swiftly in this conflict. It is a serious setback for the former vice-president, but not the end of the war.

Ceasefire talks in neighbouring Ethiopia have stalled.

Bentiu is the capital of the oil-rich Unity state. The fighting, which began on 15 December, has seen South Sudan's oil output fall by about 20%.

Col Aguer told Reuters news agency: "When you control Bentiu you control all the oil fields in Unity state."

Ahead of the government advance, thousands of people fled Bentiu.

Several thousand have sought refuge in a UN base in the city, where people have been divided according to their ethnic group in order to prevent clashes.

The conflict has seen outbreaks of ethnic violence between Dinkas, the community of President Salva Kiir, and Nuers, like Mr Machar.

Although both leaders have influential backers from the other's community, the conflict has often taken an ethnic dimension.

"We withdrew from Bentiu, but it was to avoid fighting in the streets and save civilian lives. We fight on, we will continue the battle," Mr Machar, the country's vice-president until last July, told the AFP news agency.

The BBC's Alastair Leithead says the crisis has rekindled old tribal tensions

The BBC's Andrew Harding in the South Sudanese capital, Juba, says the question now is whether the recapture of Bentiu will spur on negotiators in Ethiopia to reach a ceasefire agreement to avoid further fighting.

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'The SPLM has always been a military organisation. No discussion, no debate... the president was unable to think of any other way apart from the military for resolving things,' said South Sudan's former minister of higher education, who lost one leg to a bullet during the long civil war.”

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Mr Machar said his anti-government alliance was still committed to peace talks.

Earlier, Col Aguer urged all civilians to leave Bentiu to avoid being caught in the crossfire.

He did not give any casualty figures but said that fighters on both sides had been killed.

The colonel told the Associated Press news agency that rebel forces had "destroyed'' the town, looting the bank, stealing food and setting the market on fire.

Medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said its facilities in Bentiu were looted on Thursday, putting its operations in the region in jeopardy.

"MSF won't be able to resume its much-needed operations in Bentiu until the security of our patients, staff and facilities is guaranteed," MSF South Sudan head Raphael Georgeu said in a statement.

UN envoy in South Sudan Toby Lanzer, earlier tweeted from Bentiu that UN peacekeepers had built up defences at the UN base to protect civilians.

Swimming under gunfire

Col Aguer said that from Friday afternoon, all the government forces would be focused on recapturing Bor - the other city under rebel control.

On Thursday, people fleeing Bor told AFP that gunmen had shot dead fleeing civilians, torched entire villages and looted crops.

The BBC outlines the background to South Sudan's crisis - in 60 seconds.

South Sudanese troops loyal to President Salva Kiir (25 December 2013) The army has also been divided along ethnic lines
Refugees in Sudan Some 2,000 South Sudanese are crossing to Uganda each day

One cattle herder told of swimming across the River Nile while being shot at.

"They [the attackers] had a machine gun raised up on a sandbank, and they fired and fired and fired as we swam," Gabriel Bol told AFP.

"The bullets were hitting the water, but we knew we could not stop or they'd shoot us."

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous on Thursday night told the UN Security Council that more than 250,000 had fled their homes because of the conflict.

South Sudan is the world's newest state. It became independent in 2011 after seceding from Sudan.

map Fighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in mid-December. It followed a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar. The squabble has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians' political bases are often ethnic.
News graphic showing the ethnic groups of South Sudan Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Map showing the location of oil fields in South Sudan Both Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north
Map showing the geography of South Sudan The two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
Map showing access to water in South Sudan After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan is the world's newest country - and one of its poorest. Figures from 2010 show some 69% of households now have access to clean water - up from 48% in 2006. However, just 2% of households have water on the premises.
Map showing education levels in South Sudan Just 29% of children attend primary school in South Sudan - however this is also an improvement on the 16% recorded in 2006. About 32% of primary-age boys attend, while just 25% of girls do. Overall, 64% of children who begin primary school reach the last grade.
Map showing food insecurity rates in South Sudan Almost 28% of children under the age of five in South Sudan are moderately or severely underweight - this compares with the 33% recorded in 2006. Unity state has the highest proportion of children suffering malnourishment (46%), while Central Equatoria has the lowest (17%).

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