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South Sudan army downplays ongoing fighting around Juba

SPLA soldiers stand to attention at a containment site outside Juba on April 14, 2016 (AFP Photo)

August 2, 2016 (JUBA) - The command of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a co-national army with ‘SPLA in Opposition’ in South Sudan, has issued a statement downplaying reports that it has been engaged in an active combat with its rival army, the SPLA-IO under the leadership of former First Vice President, Riek Machar.

Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang, who speaks for the government forces denied on Tuesday that there was major offensive over the weekend, but admitted there was "small fighting" between rival forces. This is contrary to the reports from the opposition faction and the United Nations.

“There was no heavy fighting around Juba. This is a physiological warfare being waged by anti-peace elements and to scare civilians. The reality is that our forces met reconnaissance and engaged them. They tried to put up some resistance, but at the end they were overcome and they fled to different locations," said Koang in a statement also broadcast by the state-owned South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation.

Koang also accused the armed opposition forces of shelling the government military positions in Nasir town in Upper Nile, a claim the opposition denied and instead accused the government forces of initiating the attack on their position on the other side of the Sobat River.

The military spokesperson said the situation in Nasir was now calm on Tuesday and that the government was still in full control of Nasir town. He denied a loss of “even one centimeter to the anti-peace elements."

Government’s Latjor state information minister, Peter Hoth Tuach, told Sudan Tribune in a separate interview on Monday that the position of the government forces in Nasir came under sustained shelling for two days from across the Sobat River, adding the SPLA forces in the area responded in self-defense.

He added that the limited attack which the rebels tried across the river was repulsed describing it as "mere skirmishes."

“War is not the interest of anybody and we call [on] all our people to disregard the rumours from the internet. The government is committed to implementing peace and the SPLA-IO forces should also demonstrate the same commitment by giving out clear instructions to their field commanders to observe the ceasefire. On our side, the ceasefire which the president declared on July 11, 2016, is being observed by our gallant SPLA forces wherever they are deployed in the state,” explained minister Tuach.

Machar’s spokesperson, James Gatdet Dak, on Tuesday said heavy fighting has been going on in the bushes on Juba-Yei road, Juba-Mundri road and in the northwest of the capital in Katigiri area, as the opposition forces were fighting back in self-defence against over 10,000 President Kiir’s forces who were on offensive trying to hunt for Machar.

He said “several hundreds” of President Kiir’s forces have been already killed in the forests, but the government did not want to tell the truth about what was really happening in the bushes in order not to demoralize its soldiers and to deceive the citizens in Juba.

He warned that should the offensive continue, the opposition forces will be forced to move on Juba, a claim which President Kiir’s faction dismissed as unachievable.

The Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), the highest body which monitors the peace agreement signed in August last year, has issued a statement calling on President Kiir to stop deploying forces to hunt for Machar in the bushes around Juba. United Nations has also called on the two warring parties to stop the ongoing fighting “around Juba.”

Hundreds of wounded soldiers have been seen in hospitals in the capital brought from the frontlines, an indication that there is fighting going on somewhere.

A senior military official loyal to President Kiir told Sudan Tribune on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal that heavy fighting had been taking place over the weekend around Juba. He also revealed that the government incurred heavy losses, adding that recently “police forces including wildlife and national security forces have been deployed to the frontlines to back up the troops.”

South Sudan’s government has rejected any deployment of additional third party force despite the opposition’s acceptance in order to separate the two forces and guarantee protection of the rival leaderships, their officials and the citizens always caught in crossfire or targeted.