South Sudan's army today vowed to retake the contested town of Malakal, days after rebels launched their own assault on the battered riverside city, defying a month-old ceasefire agreement.
The new fighting around Malakal is the worst violence yet since the ceasefire was signed and underscores the difficulty of reaching a political solution to the conflict amid stop-start negotiations in neighboring Ethiopia.
Opposition forces loyal to former vice president Riek Machar attacked Malakal, the capital of oil-rich Upper Nile State, on Tuesday morning with mortars, and light and heavy arms. Shelling continued Wednesday, and a UN spokesperson said sporadic small-arms fire was heard Thursday.
Malakal has changed hands several times since the conflict began in December, and analysts say the new fighting is reminiscent of earlier hostilities when the government and rebels sought to gain advantage while peace talks slowly took shape. Over 500 homes in Malakal have been destroyed, according to a satellite survey.
The rebels claimed this week to control all of Malakal. But South Sudan's government says it holds the town's northern areas, and will keep fighting.
"SPLA is still preparing to launch a counter-attack anytime," government Army spokesman Col. Philip Aguer told the Monitor by phone from Juba, the capital.
The UN in South Sudan could not confirm who was in control of the town because access has been limited.
The US Embassy in Juba condemned the new outbreak of fighting, labeling it as "further blatant disregard" for the ceasefire. "Continued military conflict will only prolong the violence and worsen the humanitarian crisis that threatens to consume the country," it said in a statement.
The fighting in South Sudan began as a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and Mr. Machar erupted into deadly clashes and split the army in two.
The violence has killed thousands, including civilians targeted for their ethnicity. Nearly a million people have fled their homes. South Sudan's oil production has been cut by at least 20 percent according to Reuters.
Direct talks in Ethiopia between the rebels, the government, and a bloc of seven politicians accused by Mr. Kiir of plotting a coup, have faltered. The three delegations have not agreed on a common agenda, says Hussein Mar Nyuot, a spokesmen for Machar's team.
In the meantime, the army and rebels traded accusations of attacking churches and hospitals in Malakal, which couldn't be independently verified.
Humanitarian agencies are worried that a resumption of fighting will make an already dire situation worse.
"We have a double problem. We can't guarantee the safety of our staff there because of the violence, and we can't get vital supplies up there because we don't have humanitarian access," says Grace Cahill, a spokesperson for humanitarian group Oxfam which conducts programs in Malakal.
Ms. Cahill warns that crops may fail if farmers are afraid to return home before the April rains.
"It's not just an immediate problem that we can't get food and water and adequate medical care," she said. "I don't think we're going to be out of this emergency phase for many months."