South Sudan army readies to wrest back rebel-held town
JUBA // South Sudan’s army was poised for a major offensive against rebel forces, the president said yesterday, as the country slid towards civil war despite international peace efforts.
Expectations of a major upsurge in fighting came as the United Nations warned that the situation in the country was fast unravelling, with hundreds of thousands of civilians now at risk.
Fighting has gripped South Sudan for more than a week, after President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy, Riek Machar of attempting a coup.
Mr Machar denied the claim and accused Mr Kiir of carrying out a vicious purge of his rivals. Vowing to oust Mr Kiir, his forces seized the town of Bor, capital of the volatile eastern Jonglei state, as well as the town of Bentiu, capital of the crucial oil-producing Unity state.
The army is “now ready to move to Bor,” Mr Kiir told parliament, adding that the offensive to wrest back the town after it was captured last Wednesday was delayed until the US had airlifted its citizens out.
Mr Kiir repeated his offer to hold talks with Mr Machar, adding that the regional bloc, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, had offered to host talks.
“IGAD has offered to mediate ... but I told them that Dr Riek has to come to the table without any precondition,” he said.
Mr Machar said he was ready for dialogue to end the conflict but Mr Kiir had to first release his detained political allies.
“My message was let Salva Kiir release my comrades who are under detention and let them be evacuated to Addis Ababa and we can start dialogue straight away, because these are the people who would [handle] dialogue,” he told Reuters after speaking with African and other mediators.
The UN’s top humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, visited Bor on Sunday, and said the situation was deteriorating rapidly.
“There are hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who’ve fled into the bush or back to their villages to get out of harm’s way,” he said, describing seeing “the harrowing results of the intense violence”.
Asked which areas of the conflict-torn country he was most concerned about, Mr Lanzer said that “it would be quicker to talk about which areas I’m not worried about”.
“I hope to be wrong, otherwise, hundreds of thousands will need help very soon,” he said.
Mr Lanzer said he was “very concerned that a battle looms” in Bor, where he admitted that the UN peacekeepers were unlikely to be in a position to protect the estimated 17,000 civilians seeking shelter at the UN base there.
Foreigners from Britain, Canada, Kenya, Australia, Uganda and Ethiopia are among those seeking protection at the base, he said.
The clashes have left hundreds dead – possibly many more – and sent tens of thousands of people fleeing for protection in UN bases or to safer parts of the country.
There are both ethnic and political dimensions to the fighting, as troops loyal to Mr Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, battle forces backing Mr Machar, a Nuer.
Medecins Sans Frontieres said fighting had also spread to Upper Nile state, with their hospital in Nasir treating 24 people for gun shot wounds on Sunday.
Nuer gunmen last week stormed a UN base in Akobo, also in Jonglei state, killing two Indian peacekeepers and slaughtering at least 20 Dinka civilians who had fled to the compound for shelter, and there have been reports of ethnically-motivated killings and attacks in the capital Juba and elsewhere.
Mr Lanzer said the UN was “fortifying the camp in Bor, making sure there is no repeat of Akobo”.
Foreign governments, including in Britain, Kenya, Lebanon, Uganda and the US, have been evacuating their nationals.
Kenya Airways, one of the main commercial carriers to Juba, said they were suspending flights to South Sudan from Tuesday.
* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting from Reuters
Updated: December 23, 2013 04:00 AM