South Sudan’s Army Says Oil Heartland Is Safe From Rebellion

Dec 31, 2013 7:32 am ET

(Adds secession from Sudan in seventh paragraph.)

Dec. 31 (Bloomberg) -- South Sudan’s army says it’s confident it can protect the “heart” of the country’s oil production area from rebel attacks.

Production in the Paloch area in Melut County, Upper Nile State, is secure, Major General Gregory Vasili, an oil defense force commander, told reporters on a tour organized by South Sudanese authorities yesterday. Upper Nile is producing about 200,000 barrels of oil a day and normally accounts for 80 percent of the country’s oil output, said Paul Adong Deng, managing director of the state-own Nile Petroleum Corp, on the tour.

The United Nations estimates that more than 1,000 people have been killed in violence that has spread since fighting on Dec. 15 between soldiers in the presidential guard in the capital, Juba, bringing the country to the edge of civil. President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accuses Riek Machar, who is from the Nuer group and was fired as his deputy in July, of plotting to remove him in a coup, an accusation Machar has denied.

Machar’s rebellion against the government has expanded across the country and includes the oil-producing Unity and Upper Nile states.

Paloch is “where we will be buried,” Vasili, an in-law of Kiir, told reporters at an oil field 20 minutes drive from the town of the same name, saying that rebels don’t have the capacity to take control of the oil fields and Paloch . “We are not running from this place.”

Dinka, Nuer

Production from the region hasn’t been affected by the fighting in Malakal, the Upper Nile state’s capital which lies 150 kilometers (93 miles) south west, he said, adding that government troops are in control of the town with conflict limited to its outskirts.

Rebels on Dec. 21 said they had seized control of Unity state. The Dinka are South Sudan’s largest ethnic group while the Nuer are the second biggest of the country’s 60 ethnic groups. South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011 after decades of civil war.

On Dec. 26 a group of 21 Nuer police officers defected to Machar’s rebels and fired on facilities at the Adar oil field, Deng Akuei Kak, a field manager at Dar Petroleum Operating Company, the largest oil group in the country, said in Paloch.

“Another day they came back and they attacked the Adar camp,” he said. “They army pushed them away because they were few.”

Still, civilians in Upper Nile are less convinced of the security of the region. Many Malakal residents, including university students, have fled to Paloch by bus with 300 huddled at the town’s airport, hoping to catch a flight to Juba.

“As we sit here in Paloch we’re all afraid,” Sheikh Aguang Aleer Aguang, a 55-year old father of four, said as he sat drinking sweet tea on the steps of a shop made out of mud and corrugated iron sheets. “All we are looking for is something to save us. Anything that will assure us to stay is what we want.”

--With assistance from Maher Chmaytelli in Dubai. Editors: Antony Sguazzin, Sarah McGregor