World Africa First Look

UN returns to rebel-held South Sudan with new 'nimble' strategy

The United Nations is sending troops back to a base in Akobo, South Sudan. Instead of building a permanent presence in the rebel-controlled region, the UN is opting to fly in peacekeepers for a few days a week as part of its new approach.

Rebel fighters deliver food provided by the United Nations in Akobo, South Sudan on Jan. 19. United Nations peacekeepers are returning to the region which houses the country's antigovernment opposition.
Sam Mednick/AP
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Caption
  • Sam Mednick
    Associated Press

United Nations peacekeepers are returning to the only United Nations base in South Sudan "clearly" in an area under opposition control as residents hope for protection from what they call growing attacks by government troops.

"We've had several requests to be [in Akobo]," UN mission chief David Shearer told The Associated Press, calling the gap in services there significant. The first peacekeepers are expected to arrive in the next few weeks.

This will be the first UN peacekeeper presence in Akobo since 2013, when the base of 43 troops was abandoned after armed men stormed the compound and killed three Indian peacekeepers.

Situated near the Ethiopian border, the bustling town is one of South Sudan's last opposition strongholds and has become a refuge for thousands of ethnic Nuer fleeing the fighting in Upper Nile and Jonglei states.

South Sudan's five-year civil war has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions amid warnings of ethnic violence. The latest cease-fire, which took effect Dec. 24, was broken just hours later with both sides blaming each other for the violations.

Residents said clashes have increased in recent weeks in villages around Akobo, with people from other parts of Jonglei state streaming in daily in search of safety. Authorities estimate 2,000 people have arrived since the beginning of the month.

During a visit to the rebel-held territory this past week, the AP spoke with several people who fled attacks.

Standing in a dilapidated school where she now shelters, Mary Maway said she arrived five days ago.

"They killed my children," she said, lowering her gaze to the floor.

Earlier this month when government troops attacked her town of Yuai, Ms. Maway said she watched soldiers shoot her two children.

"I hope the UN will protect us here," she said.

South Sudan's government has repeatedly said that any attacks it has carried out during the cease-fire are only in self-defense.

The opposition government in Akobo said it hoped the UN peacekeepers will hold those responsible for the fighting to account.

"If we're attacked they'll be witness and can respond," said Gatluak Gatkek, deputy for Akobo's humanitarian arm of the government. "If there's an attack on civilians they can go onto the base and be protected."

But the new UN presence will be different from its nine other bases around the country, with six of them sheltering more than 200,000 civilians after they threw open their doors in an unprecedented move when the civil war erupted in December 2013.

The UN said it is trying a different strategy in Akobo, with peacekeepers flying in for a few days every week rather than setting up something permanent. The new base is a small house with a yard surrounded by barbed wire.

The idea is to take a more "nimble and proactive approach" to peacekeeping, mission chief Shearer said, which will allow the mission to respond rapidly in areas where the security and humanitarian situation deteriorates.

Aid workers on the ground said they hope the extra security will help them expand their activities. South Sudan has been called the world's most dangerous country for aid workers, with 28 killed in the past year.

"It will allow agencies to change from an emergency response to recovery and resilience," said Benjamin Flomo, Oxfam's acting program manager in Akobo.

This story was reported by the Associated Press.

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