23 killed as militiamen attack S Sudan oil town

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JUBA – Militia fighters attacked the capital of Sudan’s oil-producing Upper Nile state on Saturday, the southern army said, leaving 23 dead. The attack on Malakal, one of the south’s three main settlements, marked an escalation in clashes between the south’s army and militias which has aroused fears over the stability of the region in the countdown to its secession, due on July 9.
“Militia have penetrated the town. They raided at night,” said southern army spokesman Philip Aguer on Saturday morning. Renegade militia leader George Athor told Reuters one of his deputies had launched the assault to seize weapons and to strike back after a series of army offensives against his men.
“The SPLA sent all its men to the frontline to attack us, leaving Malakal unprotected. So we took advantage,” he said. Athor is a former army officer who rebelled last year saying he had been cheated out of the governorship of neighbouring Jonglei state in April elections. In January this year, southerners overwhelmingly voted to declare independence in a referendum promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war with the south.
The southern army and government has accused the north of backing militias in the south to destabilise the region and keep control of its oil, an allegation dismissed by Khartoum. The attack by up to 60 militia fighters ended later in the morning as the SPLA pursued them out of the north of the town, said senior UN official David Gressly.
Aid workers in Malakal told Reuters they were woken at about 4 a.m. (0100 GMT) by the sound of gunfire and shelling. “We’re not that close to the fighting but the buildings here were shaking. I was lying under my bed,” said one humanitarian official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Another humanitarian source said they had seen people carrying the bodies of three dead civilians into a hospital and that a hotel had been set on fire during the attack.
VOLATILE STATE: Malakal is the administrative centre of Upper Nile, a volatile state bordering north Sudan and Ethiopia. It is a base for many UN agencies and international aid groups. The state includes oil concessions run by Petrodar, a consortium led by CNPC of China and including Malaysia’s Petronas and Sudan’s own Sudapet.
Aguer said the southern army clashed with the same militia, commanded by one of Athor’s deputies called Oliny, outside Malakal on Sunday, leaving at least 56 dead, the latest in a surge of blood-letting in the region.