WASHINGTON: The United States, which played midwife to South Sudan, is increasingly alarmed the young democracy may collapse, and pushed the sacked vice president Thursday to agree to a truce with no preconditions.
In just over three weeks of fighting, “very substantially in excess” of 1,000 people are thought to have been killed, UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said. The United Nations has warned that some 240,000 people have fled their homes.
Washington, which helped give birth to the world’s newest nation in 2011, has rushed advisers and envoys to Juba to try to help negotiate a ceasefire.
“Today, tragically, the world’s youngest country and undoubtedly one of its most fragile democracies is in danger of shattering,” US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield told lawmakers, speaking on the third anniversary of the country’s overwhelming vote for independence.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice said in a statement that Washington was calling on both sides to “immediately sign” a proposed ceasefire agreement that has been put forward by negotiators.
But she singled out sacked vice president Riek Machar, saying he “must commit to a cessation of hostilities without precondition.”
“His continued insistence on the release of detainees as a precondition for a cessation of hostilities is unacceptable,” Rice said.
The unrest began on December 15 as a clash between army units loyal to President Salva Kiir and those backing Machar, who Kiir sacked accusing him of an attempted coup.
The fighting has escalated into war between government troops and a loose alliance of ethnic militia forces and army units who have defected to the rebel side.
Kiir has denounced the fighting as an attempted coup by his ambitious rival.
But Thomas-Greenfield told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “we have not seen any evidence that this was a coup attempt.”
Rather, she said, the eruption of violence had been “the consequence of a huge political rift” between Kiir and Machar, which had led to an “armed rebellion against the government.”
“Each day that the conflict continues, the risk of all-out civil war grows as ethnic tensions rise... and those who have remained on the sidelines are pulled into the conflict,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
“Political rivalries have taken on ethnic dimensions, atrocities are being committed, and men, women and children are caught in the crossfire. This is not the future for which the people of South Sudan voted.”
The United States has been working with the East African forum IGAD to try to secure a ceasefire.
And while there had been an agreement to lay down arms, Machar’s side was still insisting that 11 of his allies be released first by Kiir’s government, Thomas-Greenfield said.
“The United States is disappointed that the detainees being held by the government of South Sudan have not yet been released,” Rice said.
“The United States reiterates its call upon President Salva Kiir to release the detainees immediately to the custody of IGAD so that they can participate in the political negotiations.”
Thomas-Greenfield acknowledged too that the crisis would not end with a truce, saying there would be a need for “a very, very organized political dialogue that will lay out the grievances of the various parties.”
Former US envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman warned “there cannot be a simple return to the status quo with Machar once again vice president.
“There has been too much blood, and it would not solve anything,” Lyman added.
“The hard task ahead is to develop a new political structure, defining more clearly the democratic rights of all South Sudanese.”
The fighting is also triggering fresh humanitarian concerns in a country which is already one of the world’s poorest.
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