Juba (AFP) – Forces in South Sudan on Thursday fought fierce battles and traded blame for breaking a ceasefire as the civil war entered its sixth month amid warnings of famine if bloodshed continues.
Both sides reported heavy fighting in the key oil-producing state of Upper Nile, which now pumps almost all of South Sudan’s crude after intense battles shut down most fields in the other main area of Unity state.
Both army spokesman Philip Aguer and his rebel counterpart Lul Ruai Koang reported heavy artillery barrages and fierce gun battles at Dolieb Hill, south of Upper Nile’s war-ravaged state capital Malakal, and in the northern Renk district.
“We will continue to strictly abide by the peace agreement, but we will not allow this ceasefire to be used by rebels to continue moving and attacking our positions,” Aguer said.
Rebel spokesman Koang charged that government troops Thursday carried out “relentless and intensive shelling” of their positions at Dolieb.
He claimed government troops had fired shells as rebels gathered for a morning military parade to listen to ceasefire “agreement messages being read out to them by their respective field commanders.”
Continued fighting comes as aid agencies warned Thursday the young nation faces a catastrophic “tipping point” amid famine and genocide warnings, and as health officials reported the first death from a much-feared cholera outbreak.
“We either act now or millions will pay the price,” Oxfam chief executive Mark Goldring said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had begun dropping food by costly air drops, the first time it had done so since Afghanistan in 1997.
The war in the world’s youngest nation has claimed thousands — possibly tens of thousands — of lives, with more than 1.3 million people forced to flee their homes.
In the Renk district, a strategic region just north of the main Palouch oil field still left pumping, the rebels said government troops were “continuously attacking.”
Aguer said it had been the guerrillas who had attacked.
President Salva Kiir and rebel chief Riek Machar signed a fresh ceasefire last week but fighting broke out hours later, the second time a truce has failed to stick.
The ceasefire agreement, signed Friday in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, was the fruit of weeks of mounting international pressure and shuttle diplomacy.
But fighters on the ground appear to have paid little if any notice to it.
The United States on Wednesday called for an immediate deployment of African troops from regional nations to safeguard the ceasefire, with Washington seeking a U.N. resolution to ensure the force is in place as “quickly as possible,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs.
Thomas-Greenfield warned of possible dire consequences should the shaky peace deal fall apart.
“There is a famine that is looming if this fighting does not stop,” she said.
U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay, a former head of the U.N. genocide court for Rwanda, has said she recognized “many of the precursors of genocide” listed in a report on atrocities released last week by the organisation.
The war erupted on December 15 when Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup. Machar then fled to the bush to launch a rebellion, insisting that the president had attempted to carry out a bloody purge of his rivals.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon this week warned half of the country’s population will suffer if war continues.
“If the conflict continues, half of South Sudan’s 12 million people will either be displaced internally, refugees abroad, starving or dead by the year’s end,” Ban said.
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