JUBA, South Sudan - South Sudan's military said Thursday it no longer controls a key town in an oil-producing state where fighting has spread following what the president described as an attempted coup by soldiers loyal to a former deputy president.
"We lost control of Bor to the rebellion," said Philip Aguer, the South Sudanese military spokesman.
Authorities in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, were not answering their phones, leading the central government to believe they had defected, said Aguer.
He said there were reported gunfights in Bor overnight as renegade officers tried to wrest control of the town from loyalist forces there.
Jodi Jongole Boyoris, a lawmaker from the area, confirmed that soldiers loyal to ousted Vice President Riek Machar now controlled the town.
Ethnic rivalry is threatening to tear apart the world's newest country, with the clashes apparently pitting soldiers from the majority Dinka tribe of President Salva Kiir against those from Machar's Nuer ethnic group.
While the government insists a coup was foiled Sunday, when heavy gunfire erupted in the capital, Juba, some analysts say it remains unclear what sparked the violence and doubt the government's characterization of violent events in Juba since Sunday. By the government's own account, at least 500 people, mostly soldiers, have been killed in violence in the city since Sunday, raising questions about whether there have been targeted killings on a massive scale.
The International Crisis Group reported that armed groups in Juba have "targeted civilians based on ethnicity."
"What has for some time been a political crisis within the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) has now spilled over into an army that has long been riven by internal problems, including ethnic divisions and tensions," the group said. "The blurred lines between these institutions, senior political figures and ethnic communities - as well as wide-scale arms proliferation - make the current situation particularly volatile."
It called for a respected international mediator at a time when the country's leaders are locked "in high-stakes gambles for power."
Machar, an influential politician who is a hero of the brutal war of independence against Sudan, is Kiir's rival for top leadership of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement party. Tensions had been mounting since Kiir fired Machar as his deputy in July. Machar, the deputy chairman of the ruling party, later said he would contest the presidency in 2015. At the time, the United States and the European Union urged calm amid fears the dismissal could spark political upheaval in the country.
The global political risk think tank Eurasia Group said Kiir's firing of Machar in July had alienated the "long aggrieved Nuer" in a country with "a factionalized military and a history of violent ethnic rivalries."
The group noted that the government's arrest of local leaders with links to the alleged coup was politically motivated, adding that "Nuer leaders will seize on the alleged dictatorial turn within the presidency and the favoring of the president's ethnic Dinka community in the army's promotion decisions to mobilize defections and fresh mutinies."
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon told reporters Wednesday that South Sudan was experiencing a political crisis that "urgently needs to be dealt with through political dialogue." Ban said he urged Kiir "to resume dialogue with the political opposition."
Kiir told a news conference in Juba late Wednesday that he was willing to enter talks with Machar, who is now hiding from the armed forces who are searching for him.
Although a tense calm has now returned to Juba, military clashes appeared to be spreading elsewhere in the oil-rich East African country.
Tensions are also on the rise in the states of Unity and Upper Nile, Martin Nesirky, a spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-general's office, said Wednesday. In Bor, the capital of Jonglei where pro-Machar forces are reportedly now in charge, at least 19 civilians had been killed, he said, citing figures from the South Sudan Red Cross.
Muhumuza reported from Kampala, Uganda.