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Leer residents forced to flee alleged army offensive in Unity state

February 1, 2014 (KAMPALA) - Thousands of displaced people were forced to flee Leer county in Unity state on Saturday due to an alleged attack by government forces on positions of the SPLM/A in Opposition - a group of defected soldiers and armed civilians who have been fighting the army since mid-December.

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A Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldier, who was wounded in renewed fighting, arrives for medical attention at a clinic in the IDP camp in Minkamen, Awerial January 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Adriane Ohanesian)

Under a ceasefire deal signed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 23 January the warring parties agreed not to move their forces from their current positions. Since then, however, both sides have been accused of violating the deal.

Treason charges slapped against the SPLM/A in Opposition leadership, including former Vice President Riek Machar, have cast doubt on the viability of the fragile ceasefire, according to analysts.

A large section of the army in Unity state defected on 21 December last year assuming control of most of the state, following a similar mutiny in Jonglei. Both incidences appeared to have been triggered by the fighting in the capital, Juba between soldiers from the Presidential Guards.

Tang Both, a resident from Leer who said he was forced to run into the bush due to the army’s advancement, told Sudan Tribune on Saturday by satellite phone that many women and children were currently taking refuge in the bush after the town came under heavy bombardment.

"As am talking now we are on run, because this morning our area went under fire from government soldiers. We were forced out" he said, adding that "many children and women have died while trying to cross river [...] for safety."

Both claimed he saw two women and four children drown while trying to make it across the river.

Over 50,000 people left their homes in Bentiu town when it was retaken by the SPLA on 10 January, many of whom walked the 130-kilometers to Leer county.

The head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières in South Sudan, Raphael Gorgeu, told the BBC on Saturday that 240 members of their staff have been forced to flee to the bush as the insecurity continued to spread.

MSF’s hospital in Leer has received thousands of patients since fighting started.

The spokesperson for the SPLM/A in Opposition in Unity state, Peter Riek Gew, said that rebels had withdrawn from Leer after they were attacked by government troops because of the "massive population" in the area.

"We have not responded in fighting them back because we care for the lives of hundreds of population that we allow them peaceful to take control of the town", the rebel spokesperson said.

The South Sudan army, however, denied the rebels claims insisting it remains committed to the ceasefire agreement signed in Ethiopia last week.

"We remain committed to the cessation of hostilities agreement signed by both parties under IGAD mediation. I don’t think what they [rebels] are claiming is true," said Phillip Aguer, the SPLA spokesperson.

Many patients have run to the bush despite the government claiming control of the town. Some residents say there are fears civilians will be targeted on the basis of their ethnicity.

The conflict started as a power struggle within the ruling party, but some of the fighting has been along tribal lines with both sides being accused of abuses.

East African ceasefire monitors are being sent to South Sudan over the weekend to observe whether the deal signed in Ethiopia under mediation from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), was in force.

Negotiations between South Sudan’s warring parties are due to resume on 7 February.