, JUBA, Dec 25 – South Sudan’s army battled rebel forces in the key town of Malakal Wednesday, a minister said, as other troops flushed out remaining insurgent pockets a day after recapturing a strategic town.
“We recaptured Bor on Tuesday evening, just before sunset, and this morning there are currently operations against some pockets of rebels within the airport area,” Information Minister Michael Makwei told AFP.
“The army is clearing them up… but most of the rebels who were in the town are on the run,” he said, adding that Defence Minister Kuol Manyang had already returned to Bor, his hometown, to lead the operation.
But heavy fighting continued in the state capital of oil-producing Upper Nile state Malakal, although the government fiercely rejected rebel claims they had lost control of the town.
“There is fighting now in Malakal since morning between the government forces and the rebels,” Makuei added. “It is not true that the rebels have taken over.”
Bor’s capture, apparently without major resistance by the rebels, lifted nearly a week-long seige of the town, where some 17,000 civilians fled into the overstretched United Nations peacekeeping compound for protection, severely stretching limited food and supplies.
While its recapture is a significant victory for the government, rebel forces still control vast swathes of Jonglei state, and still hold the town of Bentiu, capital of crucial oil-producing Unity state.
Oil production, which accounts for more than 95 percent of South Sudan’s fledgling economy, has been dented by the violence, with oil workers pulled out of key fields.
Fighting has gripped South Sudan for more than a week, after President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar, who was fired from the government in July, of attempting a coup.
The UN humanitarian chief in the country, Toby Lanzer, said on Tuesday that there was “absolutely no doubt in my mind that we’re into the thousands” of dead, the first clear indication of the scale of the conflict engulfing the country.
Machar denied the claim and accused Kiir of carrying out a vicious purge of his rivals.
Vowing to oust Kiir, his forces seized the town of Bor, located just 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Juba, late on Wednesday.
Government forces have also said they are preparing to take back the town of Bentiu, now in the hands of a powerful army commander who mutinied last week to join Machar.