By Okech Francis
JUBA - The South Sudanese government on Friday admitted that rebel forces loyal to sacked vice president Riek Machar were in control of the town of Malakal, capital of Upper Nile State, going on to warn that the town faced a potential humanitarian crisis.
Briefing the press at the presidential office in Juba, spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny said the rebels were inside the town, while government forces – the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) – remained some 4km outside.
"Our forces are in their trenches four kilometers [away], but within the vicinity of Malakal," Ateny told pressmen. "Malakal is still within reach of our artillery and machine guns."
The spokesman added that the army's "tactical" withdrawal from the city had been due to a cessation of hostilities agreement signed with the rebels last month in Addis Ababa.
"It was a tactical withdrawal because we respect the cessation of hostilities agreement, but the government will ensure that there's law and order in Upper Nile State," Ateny said. "The government will retake the town to ensure the protection of civilians."
"Towns are supposed to be under government control and not [under the control of] rebels who don't respect international treaties," he added. "I can guarantee that Malakal won't remain under rebel control – the government will retake it."
The spokesman went on to allege that rebel forces had committed gross rights abuses inside the city.
"Atrocities are taking place in the town. The humanitarian situation is at its worst level, even in the UN camps," he said.
"Civilians in the camps are being denied water while targeted killings are taking place in the town," Ateny added. "Women are being raped in broad daylight and children and the elderly are being killed."
The alleged atrocities, he said, had prompted the government to take immediate action.
"The government of South Sudan is enraged by the violation of the cessation of hostilities [agreement] by the rebels," Ateny asserted.
"And the government is even more enraged by the security deterioration and continued hostilities by the rebels following the retaking of Malakal," he said.
"President Salva Kiir has commanded the SPLA to respond quickly to stop any further deterioration of the humanitarian situation on the ground," the spokesman noted.
"The army has resisted fighting with the rebels, but this time [the army] will follow them up to the villages where they hide," he added.
Ateny went on to accuse the international community of "ignoring" rebel atrocities.
"Atrocities are happening on a daily basis and the international community is quiet about this," he said. "When Riek's forces attack towns and other areas, it's doomsday for those who don't belong to his [Nuer] ethnic group."
"Maiming, killing and raping – Riek [Machar] is doing this because he wants the country to divide into ethnic groupings," Ateny argued. "Riek should come out [and admit to the atrocities] because what his forces are doing will soon spill out of control."
South Sudan has been shaken by violence since last December, when Kiir accused Machar of standing behind a failed coup attempt against his regime.
The violence has already claimed more than 10,000 lives.
The UN estimates that some 3.7 million South Sudanese are now "severely food insecure," while more than 867,000 have been displaced by the fighting.
The strategic, oil-rich city of Malakal has changed hands more than once since the conflict began more than two months ago. This week, the city became the first site of combat since the two warring camps inked a cessation of hostilities deal last month.
Many of the city's buildings have been destroyed and government facilities vandalized. Its main marketplace – along with numerous shops, offices and banks – has also been ransacked.
Large numbers of people have reportedly been killed, both in Malakal and on the city's outskirts, while numerous others have been displaced, taking refuge in UN compounds, hospitals and churches.
Ateny called on the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East Africa trade bloc that is leading ongoing mediation efforts, to "put pressure on the spoiled child, the rebels."
"The rebel commander, Gathuoth, who was operating in Malakal recently, vowed to not respect the cessation of hostilities agreement," he added. "So it's up to the army to take steps towards this."
Copyright © 2014 Anadolu Agency