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Confusion deepened in South Sudan, as ethnic fighting escalated and the army warned of a mobilizing fighting force called the “White Army” that is allied with one of the main protagonists in the two-week-old conflict.
Reuters on Monday quoted an army spokesman Philip Aguer as saying that thousands of militia fighters were near the flashpoint town of Bor, north of the capital, Juba. The agency also cited Information Minister Michael Makuei as saying civilians had fled the town, crossed the White Nile River and headed for the swamps to flee the advancing militia.
CNN, meanwhile, quoted another government official as saying that she had been negotiating with leaders of the White Army, trying to persuade the force to stop its advance. The militia gets its name from the white ash taken from burnt cow dung used to cover faces and bodies.
The conflict broke out around Dec. 15 amid reports of a coup pitting allies of President Salva Kiir against Riek Machar, whom Kiir sacked as vice president in July. Kiir is an ethnic Dinka, while Machar comes from the Nuer tribe, where the White Army draws its fighters.
With thousands of civilians fleeing and more than 1,000 people killed, the unrest has raised fears of an all-out ethnic civil war in South Sudan, which only gained its independence from Sudan in 2011. Since then, stability has been tenuous; the country is largely dependent on foreign aid, despite substantial oil reserves in northern regions. Sudan, meanwhile, has chafed at the loss of oil fields; it also relies on pipelines crossing South Sudan to export its own oil.
Bor was the site of a massacre of Dinkas by Nuer militias in 1991.
A spokesman for the UN Mission in South Sudan called the White Army a “volatile and unpredictable ingredient” to the country’s predicament. “They are a wildcard whose intervention in the theater of conflict outside Bor could ratchet up the conflict even further,” Joe Contreras was quoted as saying by the BBC.
The confusion and chaos is worrisome for other countries in East Africa, many of whom face their own political and economic problems. Uganda deployed an unknown number of troops at the Juba airport in order to “facilitate evacuation” of civilians, Ugandan military spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda was quoted by The Associated Press as saying.
African and other international leaders have struggled to bring Nuer and Machar to the negotiating table to broker a ceasefire. The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, a trade bloc made up of eight East African nations, set a Tuesday deadline for direct talks between the two, but Marchar has made demands including the release of his arrested political allies before committing to a truce, AFP reported.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, meanwhile, suggested that Uganda troops might directly intervene in the fight, which could prompt other nations to do the same.
"We gave Riek Machar four days to respond (to the ceasefire offer) and if he doesn't we shall have to go for him, all of us," Reuters quoted Museveni as telling reporters in Juba. "That is what we agreed in Nairobi."
The conflict has its true roots in the inability or unwillingness of South Sudan’s leadership to build unity for the new nation among its ethnic groups, argued Abdul Mohammed, an African Union official involved with Sudan and South Sudan, and Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts’ University’s Fletcher School in an op-ed on Washington Post:
“Stopping the shooting is the immediate priority. But the mediators should not be content with patching together a ruling coalition and returning to business as usual in advance of scheduled elections in 2015. A power-sharing formula could become just another division of the spoils, and elections could become another exercise in ethnic division….
The elites inherited vast natural wealth and boundless international good will following the historic referendum, but they squandered both. They lapsed into a culture of corruption, conspicuous personal consumption and tribalistic political machinations. They have not been serious about democratization, institution-building or even the most basic service delivery, which they have preferred to outsource to foreign relief agencies.”