January 21, 2015 (JUBA) – The South Sudanese government has accused rebels of burning an oil facility under their control in restive Unity state.
- South Sudanese soldiers guard an oil refining facility (AFP)
The latest incident comes after the South Sudanese army (SPLA) downplayed threats from rebel forces earlier this month, saying it remains in full control of oil fields in both Unity and Upper Nile states.
South Sudan’s minister of information, Michael Makuei Lueth, told reporters in the capital, Juba, on Wednesday that oppositions forces are on the offensive in both Upper Nile and Unity states.
“The rebels have been on offensive in the whole of last week in Renk area (in Upper Nile) and we managed to repulse [them] and we captured two stores from them,” said Lueth.
The minister reported that oppositions forces had been shelling Renk town on Wednesday.
Lueth, who also doubles as the government’s official spokesman, said rebel forces loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar in neighbouring Unity state, had begun destroying infrastructure under their control, including oil installations in Pariang county, which were reportedly set alight on Monday.
“This area is an area where the production of some many oil wells are pooled and directed to the processing centre in Helgili. They (rebels) set this place on fire. It was not operational of course since that is under the rebels [control],” he told reporters at the information ministry headquarters.
“The fire was burning up to yesterday (Tuesday), but we don’t how far have it [has] gone now. Of course, if oil starts to burn, the fire follows the oil wherever it is up to the wells,” he added.
South Sudan’s oil production has decreased to one quarter of its usual output since conflict broke out in mid-December 2013 following an internal political dispute in the ruling SPLM party.
Production has ceased in Unity state and only barrels in Upper Nile are functional, according to officials.
The latest incident violates an agreement brokered by China in Khartoum on 12 January in which both government and rebel forces committed to protecting oil facilities and foreign workers.
“I think it is a very, very important thing – that they (the Chinese) wanted the assurance that these institutions are properly protected and not to be destroyed in any form,” South Sudan’s foreign affairs minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, said following the meeting.
China is the largest investor in South Sudan’s oil industry, the country’s main source of revenue.
However, Lueth says recent developments have already out those commitments to the test.
“Before the ink from [the] Khartoum [agreement] could dry, they (rebels) decided to make this attack,” he said.
Efforts by Sudan Tribune to contact the country’s rebel faction for comment on the recent allegations were unsuccessful.
Thousands have been killed and about 1.9 million displaced from their homes since the conflict broke out.
Peace talks between the warring parties, which are being mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have so far failed to yield a lasting political settlement to the crisis, despite growing international pressure for both sides to set aside their differences.
The government insists that the rebel faction’s leadership is not interested in reaching a peaceful settlement to end the conflict.
“Meanwhile, we are talking in Arusha for the unification of the party and stopping this war, [and] the rebels on the other side are attacking our positions and destroying the most important facility that we have in South Sudan and that is the oil facility,” said Lueth, referring to intra-SPLM party dialogue currently underway in Tanzania.