In South Sudan, a cease-fire is supposed to be in force. But rebels are openly claiming to still be fighting, while independent satellite images of the torching of rebel leader Riek Machar's hometown of Leer confirm that government forces are also engaged in battle.
Fighting by the two sides comes ahead of negotiations scheduled to resume Monday in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. Those talks have been on hold since a Jan. 23 "cessation of hostilities" agreement that has slowed but not stopped a sudden brutal conflict in South Sudan, the world's newest nation, that since Dec. 15 has displaced 800,000 people and killed 10,000.
The core of talks remains vague but, could start a political dialogue between Kiir and Machar designed to lead to some form of national reconciliation.
The seven-week power struggle between President Salva Kiir and Mr. Machar, the former vice president, has devolved into an ethnic blood-letting, and conditions on the ground are dire enough for the UN to ask this week for $1.3 billion in humanitarian relief, saying that seasonal rains could soon make dirt roads impassable.
Negotiations Monday are to include seven rebel politicians arrested in December for allegedly plotting against President Kiir. They were released to Kenyan custody last week, according to a statement from the eight-nation East African trading bloc IGAD, which is moderating talks.
Still, four rebel leaders accused of treason remain under arrest in Juba, including Pagan Amum, the secretary general of the ruling party Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Whether talks can resume without their release is unclear. Machar, who had been South Sudan's vice-president until fired by Kiir, has made their release a condition of talks, along with the withdrawal of Ugandan forces from the South. Yet Ugandan troops, instrumental last month in swinging the outcome of fighting toward Kiir's Army in two key towns, have not withdrawn.
Rebel spokesman Brig- Gen. Lul Ruai Koang told the Monitor the cease-fire is "a huge failure.” He accused government troops of attacking rebel positions since Jan. 23, and said that Ugandan forces and members of the Sudanese rebel group Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) continue to reinforce Kiir's forces.
The Kiir government position on talks has taken various, sometimes contradictory turns. This week, officials from Juba demanded that Machar renounce the rebellion in order for talks to resume, and also questioned whether the coterie around Machar that signed the Jan. 23 cease-fire are still legitimate interlocutors.
Cease-fire monitors from IGAD have been set to deploy but so far only a "pre-positioning team" of envoys has been sent to regional capitals for talks on monitoring.
Accurate information from the field in South Sudan is hampered by lack of access by journalists and aid workers to regions where fighting has supposedly taken place, making it difficult to independently verify.
But last week, aid workers were forced to flee the town of Leer in Unity State, home of Machar, due to fighting. The rebels accused government troops of destroying the town, and images released by the Satellite Sentinel Project confirmed the settlement had been razed since the ceasefire.
For their part, the rebels claim to have achieved the mutiny and defection of 700 Army troops in Lakes State on Wednesday and to have killed 30 government troops. The defectors are allegedly to join fighters in Unity State.
Government Army spokesperson Col. Philip Aguer did not answer repeated calls from the Monitor for comment.
Both sides are accused of horrific abuses, including shootings of hospital patients in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, or rounding up and massacring young men based on their ethnicity in Juba.
Civic and church groups in South Sudan, many of whom were instrumental in South Sudan's independence in 2011, say they have largely been excluded from peace talks and are adamantly demanding a greater role in talks.
Edmund Yakani, head of a Juba group called Community Empowerment for Progess, released a statement today that, "The people of South Sudan are tired of war. We want our political leaders to resolve disputes through the ballot box – not with bullets. Civil society members – including women, youth, religious leaders and opposition groups – must have a place at the negotiating table."
As fighting wears on, aid groups speak of a worsening humanitarian situation.
“People simply do not feel safe enough yet to return home,” said Vincent Lelei, the senior UN figure in South Sudan on Thursday.
“Reports continue to be received of fighting in several parts of the country, " Mr. Lelei told reporters. "Fighting needs to stop to provide a safe environment for people to return to their homes, and rebuild their lives and livelihoods.”
South Sudan is one of the world's poorest countries; it has little infrastructure even though it is rich in oil.
Around 700,00 people have fled their homes, including nearly 125,000 that have crossed the nation's borders. The UN says it has assisted 300,000.
In recent weeks, the looting of aid has begun to constrain efforts to help civilians, including the loss of months of stockpiles of food relief. This week the French news service AFP ran photos of armed government troops near the key town of Bor that had stolen UNICEF supplies intended for schoolchildren.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders warned Thursday of worsening public health conditions in Juba’s Tomping camp where more than 27,000 people have sheltered since the violence broke out. They said the space is designed for only 5,000 people and the overcrowding is leading to unhealthy and unsanitary conditions.