South Sudanese rebels claim seizure of Malakal
Action breaches ceasefire and puts peace talks in serious question
The South Sudanese government denies that rebels now control Malakal - but rebels say they seized the capital of oil-producing Upper Nile state this week. The government says that this breaches a ceasefire and casts doubt over planned peace talks.
Diplomats are now questioning the commitment of either side to end the conflict as each has blamed the other for ceasefire violations.
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"There is little sign on either side of a real intention to sit down and negotiate seriously," one Western diplomat said.
The clashes have increased concerns about the security of South Sudan's northern oil fields. The oilfields are an economic lifeline for Juba and the neighboring nation Sudan, which receives fees from the south for crude piped across its territory to the coast for export.
Malakal, located 400 miles north of the capital Juba, were taken by the rebels shortly after daybreak. Their commander, Gathoth Gatkuoth, a close ally of former vice president Riek Machar, said that they swiftly captured the town.
Fighting continued in Malakal's southern neighborhoods and communications in the town have been lost, a spokesman for government SPLA forces said.
Both camps have repeatedly accused the other of breaking the ceasefire. South Sudan has voiced frustration at the lack of progress made by mediators to deploy regional observers to flashpoint areas.
"It is a flagrant violation of the cessation of hostilities agreement signed by both sides," South Sudan's Information Minister Michael Makuei says. "We have been calling on the envoys to expedite the establishment of the monitoring mechanism but nothing has happened so far."
Malakal lies about 90 miles from Paloch, an oil complex where a key crude oil processing facility is situated.
South Sudan has been forced to cut oil production by a fifth to 200,000 barrels per day, all of which is pumped from Upper Nile.
Rebel control of Malakal could raise concerns over its ability to maintain oil production.
"All the oil from the fields around Upper Nile is pumped to Paloch," Jacob Jok Dut, director of the Center for Democracy and International Analysis says. "If Malakal comes under rebel control, then definitely there will be tension in and around Upper Nile."
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