December 22, 2013 (BBC) — The capital of South Sudan’s oil-rich Unity State, Bentiu, has fallen to troops supporting former Vice-President Riek Machar, the army has confirmed.
“Bentiu is not in our hands,” said military spokesman Philip Aguer.
Clashes erupted between rival troops a week ago. President Salva Kiir accused Mr Machar of attempting a coup.
A UN official in the country told the BBC of an atmosphere of fear and desperation as violence escalates, and summary killings on the streets.
Toby Lanzer, the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in South Sudan, said that as well as people seeking refuge in UN compounds there were many more hiding out in the bush.
“I’m quite concerned that in a few days’ time we won’t be talking about tens of thousands, we’ll be talking about hundreds of thousands directly affected,” he said.
“It’s really very moving to see people just asking: ‘Can you please keep me alive?’”
Mr Lanzer added that there was a problem not just with fighting by conventional armies but with groups of youths who he said were simply “out of control”.
On Saturday Mr Machar said his forces controlled Unity State – whose oilfields are crucial to South Sudan’s economy.
Those reports could not be independently confirmed. However on Sunday Col Aguer told reporters: “Bentiu is in the hands of a commander who has declared support for Machar.”
He added that the number of people or wounded in the fighting was unclear.
Unity, a state on the border with Sudan, produces much of South Sudan’s oil, which accounts for more than 95% of the country’s economy.
Meanwhile the government says it is trying to retake the town of Bor in Jonglei State – another regional capital that has fallen to the rebels.
The state has seen fierce fighting in recent days.
Two Indian peacekeepers and at least 11 civilians were killed in an attack on a UN compound in Akobo, Jonglei, on Thursday.
And on Saturday, four US service personnel were wounded when their aircraft were shot at, delaying an operation to evacuate US citizens from Bor.
A day later, the US state department said US and other citizens were evacuated on civilian helicopters.
Also on Sunday, the UN mission Unmiss said it had begun relocating staff from the capital Juba to the Ugandan city of Entebbe.
Juba has been tense since the unrest began last weekend.
Resident Mogga Lado told the BBC: “I was buying some things for my children in the market on Tuesday when I saw two people dressed in normal civilian clothes shot dead in front of me by people in military clothing.
“I don’t know if they were the army or rebels. I didn’t wait to see.”
Mr Machar told the BBC on Saturday that he was prepared to negotiate with the government if politicians arrested this week were released and transferred to a neutral country such as Ethiopia.
Mr Kiir also agreed to negotiations after meeting African mediators on Friday.
President Kiir, a member of the majority Dinka ethnic group, sacked Mr Machar, who is from the Nuer community, in July.
The violence which broke out in Juba last weekend has since spread, pitting gangs of Nuer and Dinka against each other.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Sunday that he was “very concerned at the situation in South Sudan”.
He added that it was “vital that all leaders urge restraint on their supporters and commit to a political resolution of their differences”.