Negotiators from South Sudan’s two warring sides were due to arrive in Ethiopia for peace talks last night, as the top United Nations official in the country urged both forces to bring the country “back from the brink”.
Fighting continued yesterday in South Sudan’s city of Bor – a gateway city to the capital Juba 75 miles away – a government official said.
Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, is the centre of ethnically-based violence stemming from the political rivalry between president Salva Kiir and ousted vice president Riek Machar, the rebel leader accused of mounting a failed coup attempt.
The UN said more than 1,000 people have been killed in the violence.
Mr Machar said on Tuesday that he would send his forces from Bor to Juba, but that threat was downplayed by Hilde Johnson, the UN representative in South Sudan.
She said: “I think we need to take quotations with pinches of salt at this point of time.”
Pro-Machar forces in Bor appear to be taking defensive positions, Ms Johnson said. The Bor fighting has displaced about 60,000 people, in the country’s latest humanitarian crisis.
“On 1 Jan, the country is at a fork in the road, but it can still be saved from further major escalation of violence,” said Ms Johnson, who urged Mr Kiir and Mr Machar to use the new talks to move towards peace. “They can still pull the country back from the brink.”
The UN is “gravely concerned” about mounting evidence of violations of international human rights law, including extra-judicial killings of civilians and captured soldiers, it said on Tuesday.
The UN’s estimate of 1,000 dead was given days ago and the number of fatalities is believed to be higher as a result of fresh fighting around the country, including in Bor.
South Sudan foreign minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin labelled Bor a warzone yesterday.
Government troops pulled out of parts of Bor because they were concerned about having to kill the “young boys” who fill the ranks of the rebels, said one analyst.
South Sudan’s military “was told to withdraw”, said Edmund Yakani, the executive director of the Juba-based group Community Empowerment for Progress, saying the information came from sources in Bor. “They communicated that these are young boys and we are killing them like nothing.”
Government troops in Bor face renegade forces allied with a pro-Machar tribal militia known as the “White Army”, so called because its young members from the Nuer tribe smear their faces with ash to keep insects away.
Ms Johnson said 240 UN police were scheduled to arrive in South Sudan late yesterday to help at refugee camps. The UN says up to 180,000 people have been internally displaced by the violence, including about 68,000 sheltering at UN camps.
Abdi Aden Mohammed, the World Health Organisation’s representative in South Sudan, said: “Even with the tremendous efforts made by health partners, sanitation conditions are still inadequate, largely due to the large number of people sheltering in United Nations bases which have insufficient space to house these numbers.”
Although Mr Kiir insists the fighting was sparked by a coup attempt mounted by soldiers loyal to Mr Machar, this account has been disputed by some officials of the ruling party who said violence was sparked by Mr Kiir’s presidential guards.