By Nicole Gaouette, William Davison and Mading Ngor January 10, 2014
“We have not seen any evidence of a coup attempt,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. The violence since Dec. 15 is “an armed rebellion” against the government, she said.
Fighting started after President Salva Kiir accused former Vice President Riek Machar of trying to stage a coup, a charge Machar denies. The dispute has escalated into clashes between members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer group in the world’s newest nation, killing thousands of people and forcing about 270,000 to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.
The U.S., South Sudan’s largest aid donor, also “strongly believes” that Kiir’s government should release 11 politicians detained without charge when the violence erupted, Thomas-Greenfield said. The authorities in Juba have refused calls by the rebels, the U.S., the European Union and East African mediators to free the detainees.
The U.S. called on Machar and Kiir to sign a cessation of hostilities agreement being negotiated by international mediators, White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice said in an e-mailed statement.
While expressing disappointment that the government hasn’t yet freed its detainees, Rice faulted Machar for insisting on their release as a pre-condition for agreeing to accept an agreement to end the violence.
“This crisis must be ended swiftly through a negotiated settlement in order to prevent the escalation of a dangerous conflict that neither the people of South Sudan, the region or the international community can afford,” Rice said.
Opposition forces halted an advance by government soldiers in oil-rich Unity state and are currently engaging them about 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of Bentiu, the state capital, Brigadier-General Lul Ruai Koang, a spokesman for the rebels, said in a phone interview today. South Sudan’s army intensified attacks on rebel positions in the town yesterday, forcing residents to flee.
Government forces were stopped at Tor Abyad in Unity state, he said. “That is why they are not making any advance on town.”
Rebel envoys in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, where peace talks got under way this week, softened their demand that the government release the politicians yesterday, saying they would continue negotiations to end the conflict.
The detainees, who include Pagan Amum, former secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and Deng Alor, ex-minister of cabinet affairs, have said their imprisonment “should not impede the progress of negotiations,” rebel spokesman Mabior Garang said in an interview.
The detainees have political grievances and “it’s important those grievances be heard,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “This crisis will not be solved on the battlefield.”
The U.S. is providing more than $300 million in humanitarian aid to South Sudan in fiscal years 2013 and 2014. In October, President Barack Obama issued a waiver for South Sudan, exempting it from a law that forbids military aid to countries known to use child soldiers.
The U.S. led negotiations between north and south Sudan that ended a two-decade civil war in 2005 in a settlement that led to independence in July 2011.
“We birthed this nation,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “We do care as a nation about this country. We also have a significant population of Sudanese Americans who have thrived in our country but who have an abiding interest” in South Sudan’s welfare.
Companies including China National Petroleum Corp. and India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC) have evacuated employees from the country.
“The latest information that I have is that many of the oil wells have been stopped, I don’t know what the percentage is,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “There’s some oil left in the pipeline but much of the pumping has ceased.”
South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to BP Plc (BP/) data. It has been exporting all of its crude — about 245,000 barrels a day — through pipelines across Sudan. The fighting has cut output to about 200,000 barrels daily, according to the government. Oil exports provide more than 95 percent of state revenue.
Bentiu and Bor, capital of the eastern state of Jonglei, are the only areas in the country that aren’t under control of the government, Foreign Minister Barnaba Benjamin told reporters yesterday after talks with Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir.
The UN said yesterday it expects a supplementary force of 5,500 security personnel to be operational in South Sudan within the next four to eight weeks.
Ugandan Air Force planes have struck towns in South Sudan including Bor and Pariak over the past two days, according to the rebels. Uganda deployed troops in the country last month to prevent the conflict from escalating into “genocide,” the state-run New Vision reported yesterday, citing army chief Katumba Wamala.
The rebels’ chief negotiator in Addis Ababa said on Jan. 7 that Ugandan forces had staged an “invasion” and that they were bombing the insurgents’ positions.
“We have cautioned our Ugandan friends that they do have to be helpful and they have to be conscious of their actions and that their actions not lead to greater conflict,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
The conflict in South Sudan has cost Uganda’s economy 2 trillion shillings ($793 million) after exports of goods including cement, steel and food were curbed, Investment Minister Gabriel Ajedra said in an interview yesterday.
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