February 19, 2014 (JUBA) – A high ranking military official claimed on Wednesday that an internal conspiracy within the ranks of the South Sudan army (SPLA) had helped rebel forces allied to former vice-president Riek Machar enter Malakal, the capital of oil-rich Upper Nile state.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, alleged that as rebels advanced towards the town, soldiers from the Nuer ethnic group cut off communication with their commanders and left their positions in the eastern and northern perimeters of Malakal.
As a result rebel forces were able to advance on the town from three separate directions with little resistance, he told Sudan Tribune.
“It is either these people did not want to fight or that they wanted to defect. They just allowed them to enter the town and they withdrew from the trenches,” he said.
According to the official, PLA troops had surrounded Malakal prior to the attack and were communicating on rebel activity via code.
Troops in the southern parts of Malakal were under the command of Major General Johnson Uliny, while other parts were divided according to troops’ knowledge of the area.
“Unfortunately our comrades in the east and the north stopped sharing with us any activity of the enemy. They withdrew from their trenches without [our] knowledge,” he said,” the military official told Sudan Tribune.
Army spokesperson Colonel Philip Aguer denied Malakal had been recaptured, although he confirmed fighting was continuing between rebel forces and government troops loyal to president Salva Kiir Mayardit.
“The rebels of Riek Machar have not captured Malakal. It is not under their control, although a few managed to penetrate into the town from the south, north and east. Our forces remain in control of strategic areas in the southern parts of Malakal, and it is just a matter of time before our forces declare complete control of the town”, Aguer told Sudan Tribune on Wednesday.
Sudan Tribune was not able to independently verify whether some SPLA forces in Malakal had defected prior to clashes erupting. Aguer says he has lost contact with field commanders in the town and is therefore unable to provide further information on the events unfolding.
However, sources on the ground claimed that Malakal had been in rebel hands since Tuesday evening, with many civilians fleeing to a UN compound in the area.
“The rebels are in full control of the town as of now. It seems the government forces withdrew to the south. The fact that the SPLA forces are not in the key areas and installations, like airport, hospitals, river port and the military headquarters indicates that they may have pulled out,” a senior state government official told Sudan Tribune on Wednesday.
If the allegations are proven, this would be the third time that Malakal has fallen to rebel forces since conflict broke out in the country just over two months ago.
The outbreak of violence in the strategic town, located about 497km from the South Sudan capital, Juba, may also shatter a tenuous ceasefire deal signed between rebel forces and the South Sudanese government on 23 January.
In a separate incident, at least 10 people were killed on Tuesday when inter-communal violence broke out inside a UN camp, where 21,568 internally displaced people are currently seeking refuge.
The UN has not named the tribes involved in the skirmishes or provided further details on what sparked the violence.
However, witnesses claimed that fighting erupted after Nuer youth reportedly became angry when Shilluk and Dinka tribe members in the area refused to join the rebellion in support of Machar.