The Ugandan military has denied claims that a second one of its aircraft gunships had been shot down in South Sudan by rebel groups, as the United States condemned resumed violence in the country.
Col Paddy Akunda, the spokesman for the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), told the Nation on Thursday that the claim was “a white lie”.
This, he said, is because Ugandan soldiers are not in the Upper Nile region where the gunships were supposedly shot down.
“We don’t have aircraft in South Sudan and we are not engaged in any combat. Our role is to guard vital installations,” he told the Nation on phone from Kampala.
“Just treat the allegations as a white lie because it did not happen and will not happen.”
Violence resumed early last week in South Sudan despite various efforts by the regional bloc, Igad, to bring parties to talks.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the armed opposition, and forces led by General Johnson Olony have been involved in renewed fighting over oil fields in the north.
The US State Department on Wednesday condemned the violence and urged parties to respect the January agreement to cease fighting.
Marie Harf, the department's deputy spokesperson, said South Sudanese nationals had already been shattered by the cost of war and called on the United Nations to investigate those perpetrating violence.
“Any damage to South Sudan’s oil infrastructure is an additional life-long wound to the people and jeopardises South Sudan’s development and rebuilding,” she said.
“These resources belong to all South Sudanese people and the needs of the nation should be prioritised over the violent intentions of a few. “
On Wednesday evening, rebel groups led by former vice president Riek Machar claimed they had shot down another aircraft a day after they published images of a gunship they had “captured.” The photos showed a chopper with a Ugandan flag.
“SPLM/SPLA is hereby announcing that its forces have shot down another helicopter gunship on Wednesday in Melut town, South Sudan,” James Gatdet Dak, spokesman for Riek Machar said on Wednesday.
“The gunship was carrying out air raid on positions of our forces near Paloch oilfields and inside Melut town when it met its fate. It fell in Melut town and can be easily independently verified.”
The groups said they were in full control of Thiangrial oil refinery and were targeting Paloch oilfields but admitted they had “tactically withdrawn to a few kilometres outside Melut town in order to reorganise for the next move.”
Melut town is about 2,000km north of Juba and about 200km north of Malakal in the Upper Nile region, where the last active oil firms still operate.
On Tuesday, the rebels ordered Malaysian and Chinese oil firms still operating in the country to shut down as “a matter of urgency” due to violence.
But Juba’s deputy ambassador in Nairobi, James P Morgan, said it was all “propaganda” saying the depicted gunship was in fact that of a Ugandan chopper which crashed in Kenya in 2012.
“The government forces would drive rebels out of Malakal in two or three days,” he told the Nation on Tuesday.
Since March, fighters allied with Machar and locally known as the White Army announced they were mobilising to attack the Paloch oil fields that are the main source of revenue for the country’s military.
Upper Nile is South Sudan’s only remaining crude-producing state following the violence that has rocked South Sudan for more than a year.
China National Petroleum Corp., India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp. and Petroliam Nasional Bhd, the oil companies operating in the neighbouring Unity State shut and evacuated their employees earlier.
The country, which seceded from the Sudan in July 2011, had been producing 160,000 barrels per day from the Upper Nile, according to Juba. This generated about $15 million in revenues for the embattled government of Salva Kiir.
The warning by rebels came as regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), which has been midwifing peace talks said it was “dismayed” with renewed violence in Upper Nile.
“The Igad Mediation is deeply frustrated by the spread of violence to Upper Nile and strongly condemns this serious violation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) by SPLM/SPLA-IO and its allied forces,” Igad said on Sunday in a statement, the 12th such warning they have given since the war broke out in Juba in December 2013.
“The Igad Special Envoys again urge the warring Parties to adhere to the commitment they made in the eyes of their people and the international community, and resort to peaceful way of ending the crisis without further delay.”