JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — Rebels in South Sudan freed 18 peacekeepers on Thursday but still kept 12 U.N. contractors they had seized on a barge in a contested area of the war-torn African country, U.N. officials said.
The rebels said they had taken the vessels because they were thought to be transporting weapons for government troops.
Although South Sudan’s warring factions signed a peace deal in August, fighting persists, especially the contested states of Upper Nile and Unity.
On Monday, a U.N. barge resupplying fuel on the Nile River was blocked in the Kaka area by over 100 heavily armed men affiliated with rebels who detained the peacekeepers and the barge crew. The fuel and peacekeepers’ weapons were then looted, the U.N. statement said.
“UNMISS is extremely concerned that the national crew of the barge have not been released, the barge has not been returned to the United Nations, and neither has its equipment,” the U.N. statement said, urging rebel leader Riek Machar to free the contractors.
The barge was seized on the rebel-controlled west bank of the river. The east side, where the U.N. mission has bases, is held by government troops.
Two government soldiers, three South Sudan national security agency officials and six barge technicians are among those still in detention, said Nyagwal Ajak Dengkak, a local rebel spokesman. Rebel forces are taking “tough action against our enemies … for the world to know the truth of the conspiracy between” the South Sudanese military and the U.N. mission, he said in a statement.
It was not possible to verify the rebels’ statement.
Twelve of the freed peacekeepers are from Bangladesh, a Bangladeshi official told The Associated Press.
AP writer Julhas Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh, contributed to this report.
JASON PATINKIN, Associated Press
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