South Sudanese government tanks backed by helicopter gunships have pushed back rebels from a key oil town, state television showed on Friday, as the UN accused both sides of targeting one of its bases sheltering civilians.
The TV footage showed tanks firing as a helicopter gunship – believed to belong to the Ugandan army which is fighting alongside government troops – swooped over the burning town of Melut in the key northern oil state of Upper Nile.
Senior UN peacekeeping official Edmond Mulet told reporters that 22 shells had hit the UN base in Melut over the past two days, killing eight civilians, in what could amount to a war crime.
Mulet said he had been in touch with both the government and the rebel sides to urge them to “stop targeting UN premises and our protection sites” and stressed that the field commanders “know where the protection site is.”
A UN investigation is underway to determine who fired at the compound.
UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said people are “senselessly suffering through an entirely man-made catastrophe,” warning that warring forces have “managed to make a terrible situation much, much worse.”
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) separately said there was an “escalating and continued use of violence against civilians” in the three battleground northern and eastern states of Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei.
Fighting broke out in December 2013 when South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar of attempting a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings across the country.
War may be spreading
Footage from the recent battle, filmed earlier this week, shows men with rocket-propelled grenades crowded onto pickup trucks, cheering as they fire heavy machine guns fixed to the back.
Melut lies some 35 kilometres (20 miles) west of the main oil production base at Palouch, which rebels are trying to capture. Its loss would be a crippling blow to South Sudan’s already struggling economy.
At least three heavily armoured barges, equipped with anti-aircraft guns, and used for transporting troops along the Nile river, could also be seen on fire in the footage, as soldiers on the river bank raked it with gunfire and rockets.
The government assault that began in late April is one of the heaviest offensives in the 17-month long civil war and has cut off over 650,000 people from aid, with gunmen raping, torching towns and looting relief supplies, according to the United Nations and aid agencies.
Rebels last week launched a major counter-attack, including an assault on Malakal, the state capital of Upper Nile and the gateway to the country’s last remaining major oil fields.
The rebels on Friday also claimed responsibility for a rare attack in the far south of the country, killing two soldiers and a top local government official.
The attack struck the Western Equatoria region which has been largely spared of the conflict so far, and further violence there could be a worrying sign the war may be spreading.
Meanwhile, MSF has been forced to abandon its hospital in the town of Leer, in southern Unity State, and pull back into UN bases in Malakal and Melut.
‘You can’t eat the rain’
In Jonglei, an MSF team discovered the town of New Fangak “had effectively been destroyed, with trees and homes burnt to the ground and school buildings flattened,” the mission’s chief Paul Critchley said.
“The hospital, one of the main health facilities in the northern part of the state, had been demolished.”
Amnesty International said Friday its researchers had documented extreme violence.
“Interviewees gave chilling accounts of the government forces setting entire villages on fire, killing and beating residents, looting livestock and other property, committing acts of sexual violence and abducting women and children,” Amnesty said.
Civilians who escape immediate harm are nevertheless at great risk, uprooted from their homes, fleeing with few possessions and unable to plant crops. Hunger is on the rise again.
With neither side backing down the best chance for a cessation of hostilities lies with the weather, as the coming rains make impassable the few available roads, putting an end to fighting until the next dry season.
But MSF’s Critchley said this sliver of hope was “cold comfort” for terrified and starving civilians.
“You can’t eat the rain,” he said.