South Sudan government forces battle for Bentiu oil hub

Alastair Leithead was at the UN base on the edge of Bentiu when government troops opened fire on the rebel-held town

Government forces in South Sudan have launched an offensive on the strategic oil hub of Bentiu, after it was taken by rebels last month.

A column of government troops and armoured vehicles were earlier seen driving towards the centre, they add.

Rebel forces deny UN charges that they killed hundreds of people along ethnic lines after seizing the town in April.

Bentiu, in the north, has changed hands several times since fighting broke out in South Sudan last December.

Tensions came to a head after President Salva Kiir accused his sacked deputy, Riek Machar, of plotting a coup.

Mr Machar denied the charges, but then mobilised a rebel force to fight the government.

Gunfire

The government offensive in Bentiu, capital of Unity State, comes two days after President Kiir told US Secretary of State John Kerry that he was prepared to hold direct peace talks with Mr Machar.

The BBC's Alastair Leithead, in the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound on the outskirts of the city, says he has heard gunfire coming out of the town, suggesting the battle is not yet over.

South Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) national army soldiers patrol the streets with a pick-up truck after capturing the town of Bentiu, on 12 January 2014. The oil-rich town of Bentiu has changed hands several times in recent months

A long line of government troops in armoured personnel carriers, heavily armed, were earlier seen moving slowly towards the city, he adds.

On Friday, Mr Kerry secured an agreement from President Kiir to meet Mr Machar for talks in Addis Ababa that would be mediated by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

UN peacekeeper keeps guard the Bor camp for the internally displaced in Jonglei state, South Sudan, on 29 April 2014. US Secretary of State John Kerry has called for more UN peacekeepers to be deployed to South Sudan

In an interview with the Sudan Tribune on Saturday, however, Mr Machar appeared to play down the prospect of imminent direct talks with President Kiir.

He told the Paris-based news website that he had asked Mr Kerry "what would be the purpose of transitional government", adding that face-to-face talks "may be counter-productive".

A truce negotiated between the two sides in January has been largely ineffective, with Mr Kerry warning of possible genocide and calling for more peacekeepers to be deployed in recent days.

A grab made from a video released by the UNMission in South Sudan (UNMISS) on 23 April 2014 shows displaced people in a camp in Bentiu, on 22 April 2014. More than a million people have fled their homes since the conflict began

The power struggle between the two men - who fought together in the civil war before South Sudan's independence - has increasingly taken on an ethnic dimension.

Mr Kiir is a member of the country's largest group, the Dinka, while Mr Machar is from the second-biggest, the Nuer.

Rebel forces deny UN charges that they killed hundreds of people along ethnic lines after seizing the oil hub of Bentiu last month - in what is said to have been one of the worst atrocities since fighting erupted in December.

The UN said that non-Nuer South Sudanese, citizens of Sudan and even Nuers who were not celebrating the rebel arrival in the town were singled out and killed.

The UN Security Council condemned the mass killings, and threatened sanctions against those responsible for the continuing violence.

Both sides have been implicated in atrocities and war crimes, and fighting has intensified with the rebels saying they are closing in on northern oil fields and several key towns.

The UN has about 8,500 peacekeepers in South Sudan, which became the world's newest state in 2011 after seceding from Sudan.

Map of South Sudan states affected by conflict 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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