Published Friday, Feb. 21, 2014 | 6:18 a.m.
Updated Friday, Feb. 21, 2014 | 6:20 a.m.
JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — South Sudan's government said Friday that rebel fighters are in control of the capital of an oil-rich state that has seen several days of heavy fighting.
Presidential spokesman Ateny Wek said Friday that government troops carried out a "tactical withdrawal" from the city to avoid a further loss of life. Wek said there have been atrocities in Malakal, the capital of Unity State, and that the humanitarian situation is grim.
Violence broke out in South Sudan in mid-December. Despite a cease-fire signed last month, battles continue to rage between government troops and rebel fighters loyal to the country's former vice president. Wek accused the former vice president, Riek Machar, of trying to divide the country along ethnic lines.
Negotiators for the government and Machar have been meeting at talks in neighboring Ethiopia, but those talks are making little progress. The U.N. has warned that the country could face famine conditions unless residents are able to return home and plant crops before the upcoming rainy season.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced since the fighting began. Tens of thousands are seeking shelter at U.N. bases across the country.
Doctors Without Borders said it and the International Red Cross have treated more than 150 people — mostly for gunshot wounds — in and around Malakal over the last three days.
The group also said it has been treating patients wounded during fighting among the more than 21,000 people being housed inside the U.N. base there. Doctors Without Borders said displaced residents are reporting the killings and rapes of patients inside the only functional hospital in Malakal.