Crisis in South Sudan Part Two: Civilian Massacres Mark Struggle to Control Oil Industry

Andrew McGregor

May 2, 2014

Government of South Sudan (GoSS) forces are battling rebels under the command of former South Sudan vice-president Riek Machar for control of Paloch in Upper Nile State, home of the nation’s largest oil installation. The rebels have said they intend to take control of all of South Sudan’s oilfields to prevent President Salva Kiir from “using the oil revenues to finance his war and hire foreign mercenaries” (Sudan Tribune, April 23; Reuters, April 24). However, according to Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) spokesman Colonel Philip Aguer, it is “the dream of Riek Machar and his forces to either destroy the oil industry or control it or divert it. To whom, we don’t know” (VOA, April 24).

SPLA Forces on the Move near Bentiu

The civilian population of the oil-rich Greater Upper Nile region (which includes Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states) has been targeted by both rebel and government forces battling for control of the oil fields. Bentiu, the capital of Unity State, was taken over by rebel forces (including the notorious Nuer “White Army”) on April 15. The occupiers then launched attacks on civilians who had gathered in hopes of safety at the local hospital, the Catholic Church, the vacated World Food Program compound and the Bentiu mosque. According to UNMISS, more than 200 civilians were killed and over 400 wounded at the mosque alone. The mission also condemned the use of Radio Bentiu FM to “broadcast hate speech” and calls for mass rape during the opposition’s investment of the city (Sudan Tribune, April 21). During the attacks, gunmen demanded that their captives identify their ethnicity and origin and then killed all Dinkas and Darfuris. Many of the latter were traders operating from nearby Darfur.

A spokesman for the rebels’ so-called “SPLM-In-Opposition” claimed government forces had massacred the Dinka and Darfuri population of Bentiu before evacuating it. The bodies were then collected and piled in “sensitive” places to “make it look like organized executions by the incoming opposition forces.” The spokesman further claimed the dead Darfuri civilians were actually Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) fighters from Darfur who had changed into civilian clothes during the fighting for Bentiu. [1] Elsewhere, however, the commander of the SPLA’s 4th Division (a largely Nuer unit now fighting on the rebel side), Major General James Koang Chol, said the alleged JEM fighters “were in military uniform and participated in active combat against our forces… We would not have killed innocent Darfur civilians. We don’t see them as our enemies” (Sudan Tribune, April 24).

JEM denies any involvement in the South Sudan conflict, but Koang claims the movement is concerned for its supply lines running from their current bases in north Kordofan to South Sudan (Radio Tamazuj, January 2). Opposition forces claimed to have killed a JEM Major-General and a Brigadier while inflicting a recent defeat on JEM forces in Unity State (Sudan Tribune, April 25). [2] JEM and the GoSS have long-standing ties, but the degree of their military cooperation has always been a matter of some contention.

The Bentiu massacre was followed two days later by an attack by gunmen armed with RPGs on Nuer refugees in the UN compound in Bor, capital of Jonglei State. Peacekeepers from India, Nepal and South Korea were unable to prevent the slaughter of at least 46 Nuer, with hundreds more wounded (South Sudan News Agency, April 22; BBC, May 1). Bor was the scene of a massacre of some 2,000 Dinka civilians by Nuer forces under Riek Machar’s command in November, 1991.

Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta has warned that Kenya will not stand by and allow the situation in neighboring South Sudan to descend into genocide. [3] Uganda is providing military support to the GoSS and the evacuation of these forces is one of the primary demands of the opposition. Uganda appears eager to accommodate this demand as soon forces from the eight-nation Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) are ready to deploy in South Sudan to protect oilfields and strategic towns. Three battalions totaling 2500 troops from Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda are expected to have a UN-authorized mandate to use greater force to protect civilians. The deployment has been delayed due to the opposition of Riek Machar’s forces.

In the face of atrocities by both sides, the UN Security Council is re-examining the mandate of UNMISS on the assumption that the GoSS is no longer a reliable partner (Reuters, April 24). China, the largest investor in the South Sudan’s oil industry, is naturally concerned about supply interruptions and has even taken the unusual measure of offering its services as a mediator (BBC Chinese, January 8). With government troops poised to retake Bentiu, there are fears of new killings targeting the thousands of Nuer civilians who have taken refuge in the town’s UN compound.


1. James Gatdet Dak, Spokesperson of the chairman of SPLM-In Opposition: “Response to allegations of massacres in Bentiu,” April 25, 2014,

2. Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang, Directorate of Information & Moral Orientation, Office of Military Spokesperson for SPLA in Opposition, Press Release no. 53, April 24, 2014.

3. Kenya Presidency (Nairobi), Statement on South Sudan by President Uhuru Kenyatta, Chairman of the East African Community and Rapporteur of the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), April 25, 2014,

This article was published in the May 2, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.