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U.S. Asks South Sudan to Free Prisoners, Sees No Coup Effort

U.S. officials called for the release of South Sudanese political prisoners, and declined to describe the violence that’s wracking the oil-producing country as the result of an attempted coup.

“We have not seen any evidence of a coup attempt,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. “It is an armed rebellion against the government of South Sudan.”

Referring to 11 politicians detained without charge by the government when fighting broke out Dec. 15 between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. “strongly believes that the political prisoners currently being held in Juba must be released.”

The recent violence in the world’s newest nation, which broke away from Sudan in 2011, began after Kiir accused Machar of trying to stage a coup, a charge Machar denies. Ethnic and tribal tensions between members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer group have fueled the conflict.

The detainees have political grievances and “it’s important those grievances be heard,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “This crisis will not be solved on the battlefield.”

Oil Pumping ‘Ceased’

The United Nations has documented the deaths of more than 1,000 men, women, and children, and estimates that more than 240,000 people have fled their homes, she told the committee.

South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to BP Plc.

Thomas-Greenfield said “much of the pumping has ceased” at South Sudanese wells, though she said she didn’t have exact figures.

John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, a non-profit focused on ending crimes against humanity in Sudan, South Sudan and Congo among other African countries, told the committee that the U.S. should consider drawing China more deeply into the mediation efforts. “Their interests are much deeper than ours are in terms of national security,” Prendergast said.

Thomas-Greenfield said China already “seems to be playing a very positive role in supporting the peace process.” She said that “the Chinese special envoy in Addis working very closely” with Obama’s Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Ambassador Donald Booth.

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