South Sudan’s army has launched attacks in at least two directions into Upper Nile territory held by Aguelek opposition forces, which fall under the umbrella of rebel group SPLM-IO.
The attacks by the army, known as SPLA or SPLA-Juba, come in spite of a peace deal and cessation of hostilities signed with SPLM-IO in August 2015.
SPLA troops advanced westward from Malakal last week to attack Tonga in Panyikang county and northward this week to capture Lul and Kodok in Fashoda county, all previously controlled by Aguelek troops commanded by General Johnson Olony.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan reported the offensive to the UN Security Council at a hearing Tuesday. David Shearer, head of the peacekeepers, said the attacks aimed at “gaining tactical advantage over opposition positions before the onset of the rainy season.”
“Government offensives are currently going on in Upper Nile towards the town of Tonga and as we speak right now SPLA military is moving into the area of Kodok north of Malakal on the west bank of the Nile,” said Shearer.
He said that this “signals an offensive into an area the would displace… up to 70,000 civilians.” Humanitarians and human rights groups expressed “humanitarian and protection concerns” for civilians displaced by the ongoing offensive. Human Rights Watch’s Jonathan Pedneault said Kodok was shelled on Tuesday morning and by Wednesday was abandoned.
“As we speak right now SPLA is moving into Kodok.” – UN Rep. David Shearer
Pedneault cited water shortages for civilians fleeing from populated areas such as Kodok and Aburoch into harsh terrain. “Humanitarians estimate (the displaced) can survive about a week with the current amount of water available,” he said.
Aid workers evacuated from Aburoch and Kodok together with the civil population. “South Sudan’s town of Kodok is now deserted as Agwelek (are) retreating and government on the offensive,” Pedneault said Wednesday on the social media site Twitter.
The rebel administration of ‘Fashoda State’ has not yet commented on the offensive in Kodok but it confirmed Shearer’s statement about an SPLA attack toward Tonga last week.
“SPLA and Dinka Pariang militia attacked Tonga and Panyikang on April 15-17th, killing civilians and forcing thousands of them to flee to the bush,” said Buda John Aban, the opposition’s chairman for humanitarian relief in the state.
Panyikang county is the home area of General Johnson Olony, the rebel commander.
According to Buda, the fate of the civilians displaced from the Panyikang area is unknown, though some of them reached Kodok before it too fell to advancing troops, arriving in poor condition “without food, water and health care.”
He called for humanitarian assistance for those who fled to the bush including water, food and first aid. “This barbaric attacking and targeting on innocent civilians it’s absolutely unacceptable and those who committed killing of innocent civilians have to be brought to book,” said Buda.
David Shearer, the UN representative, is strongly urging the warring parties in South Sudan to reach a political solution rather than using military means, but he says that they believe only in a military solution. Shearer regretted that the violence is “intensifying ethnic divisions.”
“Regrettably, no party has shown interest in reviving the Peace Agreement,” Shearer added.
President Salva Kiir has not spoken publicly about the ongoing offensive. Last month he reportedly told East African leaders at a summit meeting that he would declare a unilateral ceasefire – a move welcomed by diplomats in Juba and New York – but afterwards did not do so.
A “third offensive” is also ongoing in the Waat area, on the Jonglei front farther to the south, Shearer says. A report in The Messenger last week discussed the possible implications of that.
Deu Grengdit, a South Sudanese who comments on current affairs on social media, wrote yesterday after hearing of the capture of Lul by SPLA troops, “(The) unilateral ceasefire seems to have been a smoke screen.”