London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Rebel leader former Vice President Riek Machar described the South Sudanese army’s recapture of the city of Bentiu on Friday as “temporary,” adding that his forces are on the march to the capital, Juba.
In exclusive comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, rebel leader Riek Machar said that his forces’ retreat from the strategically important oil city of Bentiu was a “temporary” maneuver aimed at “reorganizing rebel ranks.”
Machar affirmed that the military balance on the ground will soon shift, adding that his forces are “heading towards Juba.”
He denied knowledge that Sudanese forces are helping embattled South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, adding that his troops are “monitoring the borders and will soon know whether the Sudanese Army has fought alongside the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) or not.”
The former vice-president confirmed that his delegation will continue negotiations with Kiir in Addis Ababa, and that he has regional and international pressure to continuing the talks.
South Sudanese army spokesman Philip Aguer told Asharq Al-Awsat that government forces had repelled rebels following hours-long clashes on Friday in the capital of the oil-rich Unity province.
Aguer confirmed that government forces had retaken complete control of Bentiu, adding that military operations to uncover any rebels still hiding in the city were ongoing.
“Controlling Bentiu means controlling all oil fields in the Unity province,” he said.
The South Sudanese army spokesman added that government forces are advancing towards the rebel-held town of Bor.
Fierce fighting between the rebels and the SPLA, the government’s armed forces, has rocked the world’s newest state since December 15, when President Kiir accused former Vice President Riek Machar of attempting to stage a coup against him.
There have recently been media accusations claiming that Sudanese forces have fought alongside SPLA units against supporters of Machar.
Aguer denied reports that Khartoum or any other foreign capital were fighting alongside Juba against the rebels. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that South Sudan has an air force and combat helicopters and has used both against the rebels, denying the reports that the aerial attacks against Machar’s rebels were being conducted by Sudanese forces.
Machar revealed that Ethiopian Premier Hailemariam Desalegn had called on both sides to agree to a ceasefire, but added that there could be no ceasefire until the Juba government agrees to
release political prisoners.
The South Sudan rebel leader said that the international community’s efforts to mediate between the two warring sides to secure release of prisoners have failed, accusing international sides of adopting “illogical stances.”
“Kiir does not want to end the conflict peacefully, and rather seeks to score military victories on the ground. But he realizes that this will not last long because there is a serious political crisis in the country,” he said.
On Wednesday, Machar rejected Juba’s proposal to release political prisoners on the condition that peace negotiations, now hosted by Addis Ababa, move to the UN headquarters in the South Sudanese capital.
The White House has urged both sides to sign an agreement to immediately end the conflict. US National Security Advisor Susan Rice issued a statement called on Machar to “commit to a cessation of hostilities without precondition.”
“His [Machar’s] continued insistence on the release of detainees as a pre-condition for a cessation of hostilities is unacceptable and runs counter to the express will of the detainees,” she said.