South Sudan president, rival calls for cease-fire

Charlton Doki and Jason Patinkin
Associated Press

Juba, South Sudan —The president of South Sudan and his opposition rival both called Monday for a cease-fire in a conflict that has seen fierce clashes between their forces spread from the capital to a southeastern town.

President Salva Kiir declared a halt in fighting that began Thursday night and has raised fears of a return to civil war that could draw in more of the East African country’s ethnic groups. On Saturday, the troubled nation marked the fifth anniversary of its independence from Sudan.

Hours after the declaration by Kiir, gunfire could still be heard, although it was unclear if was fighting or troops firing in celebration.

Former rebel leader Riek Machar also called for a cease-fire. Machar, who is the country’s first vice president under a fragile peace deal, made the call in an interview with South Sudan-based Eye Radio. He also said he was still in Juba but would not elaborate.

Kiir’s announcement came after his forces overran an opposition base in Juba and killed 35 of Machar’s bodyguards, according to opposition officials. The government forces also attacked a U.N. peacekeeping base and camp for civilians who fled the violence.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the Security Council to place an immediate arms embargo on South Sudan. Speaking to reporters Monday, Ban also called for additional sanctions against South Sudan leaders who have blocked the existing peace deal and the “fortifying” of the U.N. peacekeeping force there.

“The renewed fighting is outrageous,” Ban said. “It is yet another grievous setback. It deepens the country’s suffering. It makes a mockery of commitments to peace.”

Many of the thousands displaced by the fighting are seeking shelter at two U.N. bases, a World Food Program compound and other areas, said Matilda Moyo, a spokeswoman at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Massive explosions were heard in Juba’s Tomping neighborhood, which houses a U.N. compound where at least 3,000 civilians have sought shelter. The district also has several embassies and the airport.

“It rings through the whole city every time they fire,” said an aid worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

The United States told its citizens it would evacuate all nonessential staff from the country. The Canadian Embassy has closed, according to a message sent to its citizens. India is planning to evacuate its citizens, according to a tweet by its external affairs minister.

In addition to the continued battles in Juba, clashes broke out in the town of Torit in the southeast. There also have been sporadic hostilities in Wau in the west.

South Sudan’s civil war broke out in December 2013 after fighting between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups spread across the country. The two-year civil war killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 2 million.

The war exposed South Sudan’s other ethnic divisions: Kiir’s supporters are largely Dinka, while Machar’s followers are mostly Nuer.

Kiir and Machar signed a peace accord last year and formed an uneasy transitional coalition government. But fighting continued despite the agreement and the clashes in Juba threaten to plunge the parts of South Sudan that had been relatively stable back into violence.

The new fighting also has raised concern the conflict could spread to other ethnic groups.

“2013 was mostly a fight between the Dinka and Nuer at the local level, but now it’s everyone against everyone, and we have no idea where this is going to head,” said Luuk van de Vondervoort, former member of the U.N. panel of experts on South Sudan.

“Getting the pieces back together is going to be incredibly, incredibly difficult. You can’t the put the genie back in the bottle now,” he said.

In addition to killing Machar’s bodyguards, government forces bombed his house, said rebel spokesman Goi Jooyul Yol at a news conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Much of the fighting in Juba centered in the Jebel area where there is an opposition camp and another U.N. base where about 28,000 displaced civilians have been living since 2013. Thousands more fled to the camp in the fighting.

Government troops overran the opposition base in Jebel, leaving the forces loyal to Machar with only their camp in the Gudele area as a foothold in Juba, said William Gatjiath Deng, an opposition spokesman.

Two government helicopters bombed areas near the U.N. base, while ground forces shelled the camp that houses tens of thousands of civilians, according to a source in the U.N. compound who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

The displaced civilians are mostly of the Nuer ethnic group who sought protection from the U.N. after a series of government-led killings of Nuer in Juba in 2013 that sparked the civil war, according to an African Union commission of inquiry.

Government officials have repeatedly accused the civilians inside the U.N. bases of being rebels or rebel supporters.

U.N. peacekeepers have not protected civilians at the Jebel camp or fired at the troops shelling the base, said the source in the base, who accused the soldiers with U.N. blue helmets of abandoning their positions.

“U.N. peacekeepers, they even run away,” he said. “They are not stopping it.”

U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan are mandated to use lethal force to protect civilians under imminent threat in South Sudan.

A government tank fired on a Chinese armored personnel carrier Sunday, a witness in the U.N. base told The Associated Press. The witness spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. Two U.N. peacekeepers from China were killed at the base, according to Chinese state media. Video from Chinese state TV showed smoke rising after the attack and Chinese peacekeepers tending to their wounded.

There were 67 injuries and eight deaths in the U.N. base Sunday, according to an internal situation report circulated among humanitarian organizations and seen by AP. Tanker trucks have been unable to bring water to the tens of thousands of people in the base.

A hospital operated by the International Medical Corps was hit by shelling but no one was injured and the patients had to be relocated, the organization said. Since Friday, it has treated 139 wounded, the group added.