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South Sudan recaptures oil hub from rebels

JUBA, South Sudan — South Sudan on Friday scored a significant victory in its three-week conflict against rebel forces, recapturing the capital of oil-rich Unity state.

The government is now "in full control" of Bentiu, army spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said in the capital Juba.

Bentiu fell to rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar in December.

Aguer said government forces captured 10 tanks and some vehicles after fierce gunfire exchange that lasted for about two hours.

The army spokesman did not give casualty figures.

Rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said the rebels had made "a tactical withdrawal to avoid casualties."

The whereabouts of Bentiu chief commander James Koang, who recently defected from the army to the Machar camp, were not known. Aguer said one of Koang's commanders had surrendered in Heglig north of Bentiu.

Intense fighting near Bentiu had earlier sent thousands of people fleeing the city or taking refuge at a United Nations base.

Fighting was also reported between rebel factions in Bentiu before government troops entered the city. At least three rebels were shot to death while trying to flee to the United Nations compound, Radio Tamazuj reported.

The regional broadcaster also reported widespread looting in the city.

The government was now expected to seek to regain control of Bor, the capital of the equally oil-rich Jonglei state.

The conflict that erupted mid-December has dented South Sudan's oil production by about 20 percent, according to official figures.

The power struggle between President Salva Kiir and Machar has increasingly turned into a conflict between their respective ethnic groups, the Dinkas and the Nuers.

Nearly 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict, an International Crisis Group analyst was Friday quoted by the New York Times as saying. In December, the United Nations had put the death toll at about 1,000.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the situation in South Sudan, Central African Republic and Syria as having gone "from bad to worse". He said he was especially concerned over "the spread of sectarian animosity, and by the dangerous regional and global spillover effects."

Ban called for the immediate cessation of hostilities in South Sudan and said he had called Kiir on Thursday to ask him to release political prisoners without delay.

Peace talks in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa have stalled over the rebel demand that the government release 11 Machar supporters from prison. The government accuses them of plotting with Machar to overthrow Kiir, a charge the rebels deny.
 

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