Newly born South Sudan plunges into fratricidal war

Violent clashes and political rivalry have pushed the African nation to the precipice

Newly born South Sudan plunges into fratricidal war

The new nation of South Sudan, created in an enormous international effort to end decades of conflict, has moved closer to civil war as the government vowed to storm cities under rebel control and the UN secretary-general urged a major increase in peacekeepers to help protect the tens of thousands of civilians under siege there.

With an estimated 45,000 people huddled at UN compounds in the country, desperate to escape clashes that have killed hundreds or many more in the last week and even overran a peacekeeping base, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the Security Council to send a rapid wave of reinforcements, including attack helicopters and a near doubling of international forces. “The United Nations stood with you on your road to independence,” Ban said to the South Sudanese people. “We will stay with you now.”

It took decades of fighting, negotiation and diplomacy to forge the nation of South Sudan, but little more than a week of violent clashes and political brinkmanship to push it to the precipice. South Sudan was born in the summer of 2011 with great hope and optimism, cheered on by global powers like the United States that helped shepherd it into existence. The new nation was carved out of Sudan to end one of Africa’s longest and costliest civil wars.

But the rivalry between two of South Sudan’s political leaders, president Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar, along with the long-standing divisions between their ethnic groups, threaten what little cohesion holds the state together. 

As diplomats scrambled to get South Sudan’s colliding leaders to sit down for talks, Kiir’s government warned that it would march on a pair of strategic cities that it had lost to opposing forces. One lies in a state that is central to South Sudan’s oil production, a linchpin of the economy and the country’s hopes for future development. The other is home to a UN base where an estimated 17,000 people had taken shelter from thousands of encroaching militiamen.

“The army is moving,” Col. Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the South Sudanese military, said of the government’s plans to retake the cities. “It is the army’s duty to restore stability.” UN officials told a closed meeting of the Security Council that fighting could break out within 48 hours in Bor, the site of the UN base, and that civilians had also begun to flee the nation’s capital, Juba, a diplomat said. “It seems as though the battle for Bor looms,” said Toby Lanzer, the UN humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, describing gunshots and skirmishes in the city during his visit there this weekend. “We took many, many measures to reinforce and to do everything we could to ensure that people seeking safety can get that from us.”

The fighting erupted last week in the capital after what Kiir described as an attempted coup by forces loyal to Machar, but it quickly spread to other parts of the country. Last week, UN officials said that 2,000 armed youths had overrun a UN base in the town of Akobo, killing at least 11 civilians seeking refuge there and two peacekeepers trying to protect them. An additional 20,000 civilians have crammed into the UN compound in  Juba, frightened of arrest or attacks by state security forces if they left. As the situation deteriorated, three US aircraft flying into South Sudan to evacuate US citizens in Bor were attacked Saturday morning and forced to turn back. Four service members were wounded, one seriously.

Deadly attack

On Monday, the Pentagon said that it was stepping up its planning to evacuate Americans and protect those who remain in South Sudan. About 150 Marines and six transport aircraft are being sent from Spain to Djibouti, where an emergency force was created in the wake of the deadly attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012.

The move was hinted at in a letter president Barack Obama sent to congressional leaders in which he said that he might take “further action” to support US citizens and interests in the strife-ridden region. “We were able to evacuate all Americans who presented themselves at the UN camp in Bor,” a State Department official said, referring to the capital of Jonglei state in South Sudan, among the most unstable in the country. “We will continue to work to confirm whether there are any remaining American citizens in Bor who need to be evacuated.”

The United States also put forward a Security Council resolution Monday to approve Ban’s plea for more international peacekeepers. There are more than 7,600 UN military personnel and police officers in the country, and the measure would increase that number to more than 13,000, drawn from other peacekeeping missions already deployed on the continent in places like Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo. French and US diplomats said that there was widespread support for Ban’s recommendations.

“The leaders of South Sudan face a stark choice,” said Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations. “They can return to the political dialogue and spirit of cooperation that helped establish South Sudan, or they can destroy those hard-fought gains and tear apart their newborn nation.”

Diplomats from Africa, the United States and elsewhere have tried to bring the warring parties to the table, hoping to cobble together a cease-fire before the cycle of violence gathers momentum and leads to a protracted civil war. Even before its birth as an independent nation, South Sudan, one of the poorest nations in the world, had long been strained by political and ethnic tensions that have threatened to undermine it.

The latest political skirmish surfaced when the president, Kiir, summarily fired his entire Cabinet in July, including Machar. Some opponents have dismissed his allegations of a coup attempt last week as a mere pretext to crack down on the political opposition. Critics of Machar, by contrast, see him as an opportunist who switched sides during the civil war against Sudan to gain advantages for himself, before becoming vice president when South Sudan seceded in 2011.

Both sides have expressed a willingness to negotiate, but Machar has insisted that he will go to the negotiating table only when his political allies who have been detained are released. Kiir has insisted that he enter negotiations without preconditions. 

Lanzer, the UN coordinator, said he was worried about the humanitarian situation, which he said grew more precarious as civilians fled their homes and hid in the bush to escape the violence. “They can withstand a short-term shock, but they can’t stand it for very long,” Lanzer said. “I’m more and more worried if this situation persists.”

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