JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — A brigadier speaking for rebels in South Sudan said Sunday that government troops have attacked their positions, actively violating a cease-fire in what he called a deliberate attempt to sabotage imminent peace talks.
Brig. Lul Ruai Koang told The Associated Press that rebel commanders in South Sudan report that government forces and allied militias attacked northern Leer town and surrounding villages in Unity state Saturday, killing an unknown number of people and destroying property. The rebels' defensive positions in Upper Nile state also came under attack Saturday, he said.
South Sudan military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer said he was unaware of fresh clashes.
Koang said Saturday's attacks "are clear indications that (President Salva) Kiir's government is not interested in peace but prepared for war."
It was consistent with a "trend of government destruction and carnage" that had intensified before the signing on Jan. 23 of a cease-fire agreement in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he said.
It was impossible to verify the allegations from Koang, who is based in Nairobi, capital of neighboring Kenya.
In the run-up to the truce, South Sudanese troops fighting alongside soldiers from Uganda retook key towns from the rebels, to ensure a stronger negotiating position.
Leer is the town where Doctors Without Borders reported Friday that a hospital was hastily evacuated, with 240 people including medical staff and patients fleeing into the bush fearful for their lives following "reports that fighting was approaching."
The Catholic Church's administrator in Juba, Roko Taban, said they have had no contact with Leer for several days since priests and nuns there had fled. "We've not been able to reach them despite trying for some days, the network is not good but we also don't know where they've gone exactly," he said.
Thousands of people across Unity state are hiding in the bush amid heightened insecurity, according to Doctors Without Borders, which said there are no more patients at its hospital in Leer.
Leer is also the hometown of Riek Machar, the fired former vice president who is commanding the rebellion.
The United Nations says both sides have committed gross violations of human rights during the conflict that began mid-December with entire army battalions defecting to the rebels made up of mainly Nuer fighters loyal to Machar. Government troops are mostly from the president's Dinka tribe, the largest in South Sudan.
More than 1,000 people are estimated to have been killed and 800,000 have been forced from their homes, including 123,000 who have fled to neighboring countries.
The government insists the violence was sparked by a failed Dec. 15 coup attempt by soldiers loyal to Machar. Machar, who is in hiding, denies the allegation and says Kiir is a dictator who should be removed from power.
In what was seen as a conciliatory move last week, seven of 11 leaders detained for alleged treason were freed on Wednesday and flown to Kenya. The U.S. is urging South Sudan's government to free the remaining detainees, all allies of Machar.
Tigist Hailu, a spokeswoman for the regional bloc mediating the peace talks, said a 14-member team traveled to South Sudan on Saturday to try to put in place a monitoring and evaluation mechanism for the cease-fire.
The second round of talks is expected to start later this month.
Meseret reported from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.