Fighting intensifies in S. Sudan as faction leaders sit at luxury hotel

Peace talks may be near but the US Embassy is pulling more staff from Juba, fighting is raging, and aid groups say delivering humanitarian assistance is daunting.

Ben Curtis/AP
Displaced people walk to find an unoccupied patch of ground where they can rest after arriving by river barge from Bor, some of the thousands who fled the recent fighting between government and rebel forces in Bor by boat across the White Nile, in the town of Awerial, South Sudan, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014.

In a sign of worsening violence in South Sudan -- and despite the opening of peace talks Friday in Addis Ababa -- the US State Department said it is pulling more embassy staff from the capital Juba. 

The “further drawdown” of embassy staff is due to the “deteriorating security situation” in South Sudan, where the UN says over a thousand people have been killed in fewer than three weeks of fighting between rebels and government forces.

On Friday, representatives of President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar were staying at the same luxury hotel in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, but the delegations had not begun to negotiate directly and are reportedly still working through intermediaries.

Meanwhile, despite expectations last week of a truce, fighting in South Sudan continues as the two main groups try to seize territory and resources to improve bargaining positions.

Pro- and anti-government forces clashed 15 miles south of Bor, the strategic capital of the state of Jonglei which is now held by rebels after changing hands three times since fighting began on Dec. 15.

Mr. Machar, the former deputy president,  has vowed to march south from Bor to the capital Juba. But Col. Philip Aguer of the government's Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) sounded defiant. In a phone call with the Monitor he predicted that Bor, a strategic oil-rich town, will be retaken.

“The SPLA is advancing toward Bor town and they have been clashing with forces of Riek Machar for the last six hours,” he said in a call Friday afternoon East Africa time. “In a matter of time Bor will be taken by the government forces.”

Col. Aguer also said that fighting could break out "anytime" in a different South Sudan state, Unity, where the rebels control the capital Bentiu. He said that armed youth are mobilizing to attack the Adar oil area in Upper Nile State.  The “SPLA is ready to defend Adar oil area,” he said.

The fighting started in mid-December as a political contest between Kiir and Machar and has exposed deep ethnic divisions.

The UN says 200,000 people are displaced, but warned that number could double.  The UN has asked for $209 million in humanitarian assistance. On Friday, along with announcing staff reductions in the embassy, the US government also pledged $49.8 million in humanitarian assistance.

The need for aid

The fighting has delivering aid extremely difficult, a number of aid agencies told the Monitor. 

“There will be a little bit of peace for a day or two but not enough to get goods in,” Helen Mould of UK-based Save the Children told the Monitor, referring to hotspots like Bor and Bentiu.

“Right now there’s an urgent need for everything -- food, emergency relief items, clean water and sanitation, shelters, blankets,” Ms. Mould says. “People fled with nothing in the middle of the night with bullets going through their windows.”

One of those people is a man in the Bentiu UN compound who wanted to be referred to as Muze.  He took shelter there after armed men of another ethnicity came for him at his house.

With wind whipping in the background, Muze described by phone the scene of 8000 people afraid to go home. He said the open ground is being used as a bathroom and said there is little shelter. He and two friends “are lucky” he says because they have a carpet that they have constructed as a covering. 

“There is lack of medication,” he added.  “Even as I am telling you, there are people there who are wounded and crying out.”

Muze called on leaders to cease the violence.

“They are supposed to lead responsibly,” he said.  “But who are you going to lead?  They are [killing] their own civilians.  It is so embarrassing to me.”

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