Forces loyal to the government of South Sudan claim to have retaken all major state towns in the country, including Bor and Malakal, the capital of oil-rich Upper Nile state, after more than a month of fierce fighting against opposition forces drawn from their own cadres.

“Malakal fell to our forces at 1 pm today,” said Colonel Phillip Aguer, spokesperson for the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army, “We are now in full control of the town.”

In the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, rebel spokesperson, Brigadier General Lul Koang denied the government claims, and said government forces had been repulsed from Malakal. Previously, Brig. Gen. Koang had confirmed that the rebel army had retreated from Bor.

The towns of Bentiu, Bor and Malakal, and much of the eastern part of South Sudan has been laid waste by an internecine battle between forces loyal to South Sudan President Salva Kiir and those allied to his former Deputy Riek Machar.

Security officials acquainted with the fighting said the fall of Bor could mark a new turn in the conflict with Mr. Machar’s forces seeking to minimize casualties by dispersing from towns and regrouping in the countryside before considering a fresh assault. Mr. Machar’s forces are believed to be concentrated in the Greater Upper Nile region where all the fighting has occurred.

Envoys for both sides have spent nearly three, largely fruitless, weeks in Addis Ababa in search of an elusive ceasefire even as violence has engulfed nearly a third of the country.

Thousands have been killed and 468,000 have been displaced since the conflict, which began as a mutiny in Juba on December 15 last year, spread to the countryside and transformed into an ethnic conflict between the Mr. Kiir’s Dinka community and Mr. Machar’s Nuer group.

“Mass atrocities have been committed by both sides,” said UN Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic after a four-day visit to some of the affected areas. “

I have received reports of mass killings, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and the use of children in the conflict,” he said, adding that the country had been set back a decade.

Approximately 2,200 troops of the Indian army have been deployed as peacekeepers in Juba, Bor and Malakal as part of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The total force of 5,500 peacekeepers shall soon be enhanced to 12,500 to deal with the spiraling crisis. At present, nearly 67,000 civilians are currently seeking refuge in UNMISS camps.

“If UNMISS had not opened their gates to protect civilians fleeing the violence, there is no doubt that killings on an even larger scale would have happened,” said Mr. Simonovic. Their impartial presence is also of great importance to help prevent further atrocities from being committed and for the protection of civilians.

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