Efforts to end South Sudan crisis gain pace
JUBA // South Sudan’s army battled rebel forces yesterday in one key town while troops flushed out insurgents in another after its recapture, as the UN moves to double its peacekeeping force to stave off civil war.
Thousands are believed to have been killed in more than a week of violence between troops loyal to the country’s president, Salva Kiir, and those backing his rival Riek Machar, a former vice president who was sacked in July.
Although the fighting is continuing, the United Nations mission in South Sudan yesterday denied a report of a mass grave that was issued by the office of a UN Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Berlin office of Navi Pillay said on Tuesday that a grave of 75 bodies was found in Bentiu, Unity State. Later the office revised that figure to 34 bodies and 75 people feared missing.
The UN mission in South Sudan said the report was an inflation of a “skirmish” that killed 15 people. It said it was still deeply concerned about extrajudicial killings and is investigating those reports.
The UN Security Council has also voted to bolster the UN’s peace-keeping mission in South Sudan and help end a worsening conflict that the African Union warned risks escalating into a full-scale civil war.
The council on Tuesday unanimously approved UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s request to as many as 5,500 soldiers and 423 police officers to the force of 7,900 uniformed personnel already authorised.
“Even with additional capabilities, we will not be able to protect every civilian in need in South Sudan,” mr Ban said after the vote. “The parties are responsible to end the conflict. Political dialog, in the end, is the only solution.”
Government forces had celebrated late Tuesday the recapture of Bor from forces loyal to Machar after the army stormed the strategic town, but battles raged elsewhere including Malakal, capital of oil-producing Upper Nile state.
The information minister, Michael Makwei, denied rebel claims they had seized it.
“There is fighting now in Malakal since morning between the government forces and the rebels,” Mr Makwei said. “It is not true that the rebels have taken over.”
Fighting has spread to half the country’s 10 states, the United Nations said, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to the countryside and others flooding UN bases seeking shelter.
The UN humanitarian chief in the country, Toby Lanzer, said Tuesday there was “absolutely no doubt in my mind that we’re into the thousands” of dead, the first clear indication of the scale of the conflict engulfing the world’s youngest country.
Witnesses have recounted a wave of atrocities, including an orchestrated campaign of mass killings and rape.
“There are now people who are targeting others because of their tribal affiliation,” Mr Kiir said in a Christmas message to the country, where the population is roughly divided between Christians, Muslims and traditional beliefs. “It will only lead to one thing and that is to turn this new nation into chaos.”
Government forces have also said they are preparing to take back the town of Bentiu, capital of South Sudan’s most important oil region Unity state, now in the hands of a powerful army commander who mutinied last week to join Mr Machar.
Oil production, which accounts for more than 95 per cent of South Sudan’s fledgling economy, has been dented by the violence, with oil workers evacuated.
Bor’s recapture, apparently without major resistance by the rebels, lifted nearly a week-long siege of the town, where some 17,000 civilians fled into the overstretched UN compounds for protection, severely stretching limited food and supplies.
“There are currently operations against some pockets of rebels within the airport area” in Bor, Mr Makwei said. “The army is clearing them up ... but most of the rebels who were in the town are on the run.”
UN peacekeepers had spent days bolstering fortifications ahead of the army assault, after militia gunmen last week stormed a UN compound in the Jonglei outpost of Akobo, killing two Indian soldiers and about 20 ethnic Dinka civilians sheltering there.
The unrest has taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir’s Dinka tribe against Mr Machar’s Nuer.
Mr Machar said he was ready to accept Kiir’s offer of talks, following days of shuttle diplomacy by African nations and calls from Western powers for an end to the fighting.
Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Bloomberg News
Updated: December 25, 2013 04:00 AM