South Sudanese army forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar captured two towns in Jonglei state from government forces in a sign of a worsening ethnic divide in the world’s newest nation.
Ethnic Nuer troops who support Machar are defecting in Jonglei state from the army under the control of President Salva Kiir, who belongs to the Dinka group. The government accused Machar of staging an attempted coup on Dec. 15 and is seeking to arrest him. Fighting in the capital, Juba, forced more than 16,000 people to seek shelter at two United Nations compounds.
“Forces loyal to Riek Machar are in control of Malual Caat and Panpandiar,” army spokesman Philip Aguer said today by phone from Juba. Fighting is continuing around Pakuau, about 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) outside of the Jonglei state capital, Bor, he said.
Kiir declared an overnight curfew Dec. 16 in Juba after fighting began a day earlier between soldiers at an army barracks, leaving at least 40 people dead, according to the Health Ministry. Quiet returned to the city today, with most shops and the airport having reopened.
“The key facets of a civil war are already there,” Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa director at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said today by phone from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. “There is fighting in the capital, there are units in the army not loyal to the president and there are armed groups that have taken action against civilians.”
Kiir fired Machar along with the entire cabinet after the former deputy said he will contest the 2015 presidential elections. The country has been ruled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, known as the SPLM, since it gained independence from Sudan two years ago.
Machar, in an interview with the Paris-based Sudan Tribune, denied that he tried to carry out a coup, the online newspaper reported today on its website.
“What is happening is a manifestation of a political dispute over the past six months in the SPLM, not necessarily along ethnic lines, but political affiliations,” Barnes said. “But it is being manifested in military fighting, because in the SPLA, the army, loyalty is not to the state or presidency but to individual commanders.”
The defecting troops in Jonglei are under the command of a Machar loyalist, General Peter Gatdet Yak, said Philip Thon Leek, member of parliament for Jonglei state, by phone from Juba. Jonglei is an eastern state bordering Ethiopia where Total SA has a stake in an oil-exploration concession.
The UN Special Representative to South Sudan Hilde Johnson yesterday urged the country’s leaders “to refrain from any action that fuels ethnic tensions and exacerbates violence.”
Bor was the scene of one of the worst massacres during the Sudanese civil war prior to South Sudan’s independence. Splits in the SPLM in 1991 sparked clashes around the city between the Dinka, the country’s biggest ethnic group, and the Nuer.
Fighting in what became known as the “Bor Massacre” killed as many as 2,000 civilians, according to Amnesty International, and pitted the Dinka forces against those of Riek Machar, who at the time had formed an alliance with the Sudanese government in Khartoum. Machar later apologized for the killings.
The U.S. State Department yesterday ordered its non-essential employees to leave the country and advised American citizens against travel to South Sudan.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf declined to call the violence in South Sudan a coup, saying, “It’s too early to determine what sparked the violence.”
The South Sudanese government said on its website that it had arrested Deng Alor, ex-minister of cabinet affairs, Oyay Deng Ajak, former head of national security, Madut Biar, one-time telecommunications minister, and Gier Chaung, former roads minister. Others held are ex-justice minister, John Luk, former sports minister, Cirino Hteng, and Majak Agot, one-time deputy defense minister.
Pagan Amum, secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and former chief negotiator in talks with Sudan, is among those being sought, according to the statement.
“They’re being pursued and ultimately they’ll be arrested,” Information Minister Michael Makuei said yesterday. “They’re ambitious politicians who want to achieve their objectives through other means than democracy.”
When South Sudan split from its northern neighbor Sudan in 2011, it took three-quarters of the formerly united country’s oil output.
The land-locked nation has sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to the BP Statistical Review, and exports about 220,000 barrels of oil a day through pipelines across Sudan. A dispute with Sudan in 2012 over export revenues led to a 15-month freeze in crude production that cut South Sudan’s gross domestic product in half.
China National Petroleum Corp., Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional Bhd. and India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd. produce most of the country’s crude.