KAMPALA, Uganda – South Sudan’s central government lost control of the capital of a key oil-producing state Sunday, the military said, as renegade forces loyal to a former deputy president seized more territory in fighting that has raised fears of full-blown civil war in the world’s newest country.
Bentiu, the capital of oil-rich Unity state, is now controlled by a military commander loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, said Col. Philip Aguer, the South Sudanese military spokesman.
South Sudan gets nearly 99 percent of its government budget from oil revenues, and the country reportedly earned $1.3 billion in oil sales in just five months this year, according to the London-based watchdog group Global Witness.
Although the country’s capital, Juba, is mostly peaceful a week after a dispute among members of the presidential guard triggered violent clashes between military factions, fighting continues as the central government tries to assert authority in the states of Unity and Jonglei.
Michael Makuei Lueth, South Sudan’s information minister, said Machar was believed to be hiding somewhere in Unity state.
“He is a rebel, he’s a renegade and we are looking for him. He’s moving in the bushes of South Sudan,” Lueth said of Machar.
The U.N. Mission in South Sudan said in a statement Sunday that all non-critical staff members in Juba are being evacuated to Uganda. The mission said the move was “a precautionary measure to reduce pressures on its limited resources” as it continues to provide assistance and shelter to more than 20,000 civilians gathered inside its compounds in Juba, the mission said in a statement.
Hilde Johnson, the U.N. secretary-general’s envoy in South Sudan, said the evacuation doesn’t mean the U.N. is “abandoning” South Sudan.
“We are here to stay and will carry on in our collective resolve to work with and for the people of South Sudan,” she said. “To anyone who wants to threaten us, attack us or put obstacles in our way, our message remains loud and clear: we will not be intimidated.”
The U.S. and other countries have been evacuating their citizens from South Sudan. The U.S. has evacuated about 680 Americans and other foreign nationals so far, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
It remains unclear how many Americans are still stranded in Bor and other rural towns.
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, said today that an attempted military coup had triggered the violence, and the blame was placed on Machar, an ethnic Nuer. But officials have since said a fight between Dinka and Nuer members of the presidential guard triggered the fighting that later spread across the East African country.
Machar’s ouster from the country’s No. 2 political position earlier this year had stoked ethnic tensions. Machar, who has criticized Kiir as a dictator, later said he would contest presidential elections in 2015.