In what appears to be a significant change of position, South Sudan says it will release four remaining political prisoners it arrested for an alleged coup in December – a move that would clear the highest hurdle for peace process in warring South Sudan.
Three days ago, President Salva Kiir’s government freed seven of 11 prisoners, who promptly flew to Kenya, where authorities had volunteered to take custody of them.
At the same time, however, the justice ministry in Juba said it would put the remaining four on trial for treason. Rebel forces led by former Vice President Riek Machar, accused by Mr. Kiir of scheming to topple him, have demanded the release of all 11 prisoners as a necessary and agreed-upon step toward formal peace talks next month.
Last week, a tentative “cessation of hostilities” agreement was finally signed Jan. 23 after some 40 days of sudden, brutal fighting that killed thousands, displaced 700,000, and leveled towns in the oil-producing nation.
Since the fragile cease-fire last week, fighting on the ground has remained sporadic -- and South Sudan, which gained independence only in 2011, has been under considerable international pressure, including by Washington, to follow through on the terms of the Jan. 23 agreement.
Today, South Sudan’s foreign minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, in Addis Ababa for an African Union summit that has largely focused on South Sudan and the Central African Republic crisis, said the release of the men would quickly follow the end of an investigation.
“The investigations are not completed,” Mr. Benjamin said in an interview. “Once they are complete they will equally be released also.”
Cease-fire "mediators" are set to arrive in South Sudan this weekend, according to officials from the seven-nation Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which is made up of East African nations that will do most of the peace monitoring. IGAD officials say that peace talks will resume on Feb. 7 with or without the remaining four detainees.
Mr. Machar yesterday told a BBC radio program that the four were necessary for the negotiations.
The four opposition rebels still incarcerated in Juba include Pagan Amum, the former secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and former national security minister Oyai Deng Ajak.
Benjamin said today the four men would be released and available to participate in the Feb. 7 talks, but did not give a set date, citing the investigation by the justice ministry in Juba.
Clashes in South Sudan continue despite the cessation agreement. Today, a spokesman for the opposition forces claimed that the military attacked rebels in the oil-rich Unity region.
That news appeared to be confirmed by a notice today on the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) website that the remaining hospital staff in Unity, mostly 240 locals, were forced to flee into the bush with others in the population.
The government in Juba has played down reports of fighting, while Seyoum Mesfin, the top mediator for the East African IGAD group, says the cease-fire is mostly being observed by both sides. The IGAD effort is to receive support by the US, the EU, and China – which has significant oil interests in the region – in the form of cash, logistics, and personnel.
One damper on the peace process is the sticky issue of Ugandan troops, who have entered the conflict in defense of Kiir’s government. While officials from Kampala say they plan at some point to engage in the “progressive withdrawal” called for in the Addis Ababa accord, they have also made clear their intention to maintain a military presence in South Sudan, citing a previous deal with Juba.
“We have been in South Sudan before, chasing the Lord’s Resistance Army, so we’re not withdrawing,” Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa said today at the African Union.