World Bulletin / News Desk
Senior members of the influential U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee urged South Sudan's leaders on Friday to stop violence threatening to spiral into civil war in a country that has received billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer funds.
In letters obtained by Reuters, Democratic Senators Robert Menendez, chairman of the committee, and Chris Coons, chairman of the Africa subcommittee, wrote to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar expressing deep concern about the turmoil.
Fighting since mid-December, often along ethnic lines, has pitted Kiir's SPLA government forces against rebels loyal to Machar, raising fears the oil-exporting country could become Africa's next failed state.
At least 1,000 people have been killed, with some estimates as high as 10,000, and more than 200,000 have been displaced. Oil exports - key to South Sudan's economy - have plummeted, adding to regional instability.
"As long-time friends of South Sudan, we must first express our deep concern to you, its president, with the hope that you do everything in your power to bring the violence to an immediate end," Menendez and Coons wrote to Kiir.
The senators urged all parties to agree to an immediate ceasefire, without preconditions. They also called on Kiir to release political detainees to allow them participate in peace negotiations.
They called for a more inclusive and transparent political dialogue, as well as an end to any harassment of relief workers, and expressed alarm about human rights violations.
"We are closely monitoring potential human rights violations and atrocities against innocent civilians, committed by any and all parties. We strongly urge you to demand restraint," they wrote to Machar.
Washington has spent billions of dollars - congressional aides estimated $600 million per year - to help build the fledgling nation, including allowing weapons sales to its government and providing security training for its armed forces.
Unlike many African countries, South Sudan enjoys the strong interest of a broad range of U.S. lawmakers, who backed the push by largely Christian and African southern Sudan to split from Muslim- and Arab-dominated northern Sudan and form the world's youngest state three years ago.
But some members of Congress have been expressing deep frustration with the wave of violence and several have questioned whether it is appropriate for the United States to cut back on aid or slap sanctions on those responsible.
Menendez called a Senate Foreign relations hearing last week to question U.S. officials and activists about the crisis. The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee held a similar hearing this week.
South Sudan minister: Rebel leader can't make ceasefire hold
South Sudan's defence minister said on Friday the leader of rebels battling government forces did not have enough control over his fighters to make any ceasefire hold, as peace talks dragged on with no sign of a deal.
Defence Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk also told Reuters the two sides were still fighting over two strategic towns and said his government could ask Sudan for military help if the conflict in the world's newest nation threatened South Sudan's oilfields.
Sudan, from which the south split in 2011, relies on revenues from fees charged for use of its pipeline that carries South Sudan's oil exports to international markets.
Troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels backing the deputy he sacked in July, Riek Machar, have been fighting since mid-December. The conflict has increasingly followed ethnic lines, pitting Kiir's Dinka group against the Nuer of Machar.
Juuk said Machar had used a spiritual leader, who he named as Dak Kueth, to stir up people to fight.
"(Machar) is not in control of these people. So even if a peace agreement is signed, or cessation of hostilities, these people who are not under the control of Machar will continue creating insecurity for the people and government," he said.
"We cannot make a unilateral ceasefire because it is they (the rebels) who are attacking the civil population and government positions," Juuk added.
The two sides are negotiating a ceasefire deal in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, but there has been no clear progress. Rebel demands include that Ugandan troops deployed in South Sudan stop supporting government forces in combat.
Uganda's military support of Kiir has raised worries that other regional players could be drawn into the conflict, in which a U.N. envoy said on Friday thousands had been killed and "mass atrocities" had been committed by both sides.
South Sudan has also asked Sudan for engineers to help maintain oil output which has slipped to about 200,000 barrels per day, from about 245,000 bpd before the fighting.
Asked if South Sudan would seek a joint security force with Sudan to protect fields, Juuk said: "Until now we have not asked the Sudan government to send in their forces."
"Should there be a threat, anything threatening the oil field, definitely the government of South Sudan may ask the Sudan government to come in and support," the minister said.
Juuk said the government was in control of Bentiu, the capital of oil producing Unity state, and that the two sides were still fighting over Malakal in another oil area and the flashpoint town of Bor.
All three places are north of South Sudan's capital Juba.
The rebels have acknowledged the loss of Bentiu but the fate of the other two towns has been unclear as fighting has raged.
International medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it was forced to suspend activities in Malakal following the looting of its compounds. It said fierce fighting had broken out in Malakal on Jan. 13.
Juuk shrugged off the rebels' criticism of the role of Ugandan troops in South Sudan.
"We have requested support from Uganda. It is not a new situation, countries seek support from other countries whenever they are in trouble," he said.
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic called on Friday for the speedy establishment of an independent, impartial fact-finding commission on the conflict.
"Clearly the crisis, which started as a political one, has now taken on an inter-ethnic dimension that urgently needs to be addressed," he said after a four-day visit to the country.
"People on both sides are absolutely convinced that the other side is to blame, which makes the situation even more dangerous," he said.
Simonovic said the United Nations would issue a report on human rights violations since fighting began on Dec. 15 and said the crimes included mass killings, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and arbitrary detentions.Last Mod: 18 Ocak 2014, 11:59