South Sudan rebels said they had wrested control of Pagak, their stronghold town near the country’s border with Ethiopia, from government forces, a day after launching an offensive to drive them out.
Formerly controlled by rebels, the town was captured by South Sudan’s military five days ago but heavy fighting erupted on Friday with rebels vowing to retake it.
“We took control of Pagak…government forces are not in Pagak, we have pushed them out,” rebel spokesman Lam Paul Gabriel told Reuters.
Dickson Gatluak Jock, spokesman for South Sudan’s Vice President, Taban Deng Gai, denied the military lost Pagak but said they had lost three soldiers in fighting while four were wounded.
Gai is a former rebel but last year he defected to the government side and was handed the vice presidency. His former rebel forces, now part of the government military, are on the frontline in Pagak.
“We clashed with them (rebels) yesterday in Pagak but we are in full control of the area,” he said.
Fighting died down on Saturday, he said, but acknowledged the rebels “are not far from our area.”
Pagak is a major town on a road connecting South Sudan to Ethiopia. Rebel control of the town allows easy cross-border movement and smuggling of weapons and other supplies from Ethiopia. Government is also eager to control it so it can block rebel access to resources.
Jock said the military had killed five rebels during Friday’s fighting but the insurgents denied the claim.