The government and rebels in South Sudan signed a cease-fire to end five weeks of fighting that killed as many as 10,000 people and was described by a senior United Nations official as “a horror.”
The warring parties agreed to halt fighting within 24 hours, in an accord signed today by the head of South Sudan’s negotiating team, Nhial Deng Nhial, and rebel-delegation leader Taban Deng Gai in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The signing was witnessed by officials including Seyoum Mesfin, head of an East African mediation team, and Chinese Ambassador to the African Union Xie Xiaoyan.
The signing is a “significant step forward,” Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said at the ceremony. “The two sides need to advance the implementation of these agreements through dialogue and reconciliation, and walk their talk for the sake of their people,”
Violence erupted in the world’s newest nation on Dec. 15 after President Salva Kiir accused Machar, whom he fired in July, of trying to stage a coup, a charge Machar denies. The dispute escalated into clashes between members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer group.
The death toll from the fighting is approaching 10,000, according to the International Crisis Group, while the UN says half a million people have been forced to flee their homes, almost 84,000 of them to neighboring countries.
The delegations signed two agreements, one covering the cessation of hostilities, and the other on the issue of 11 detainees who have been held without charge since the fighting started. The rebels had previously demanded that the arrested politicians be freed before they signed the cease-fire. Mediators will now work to have the detainees released to participate in the next phase of talks that start Feb. 7, Gai said in an interview.
“If the government is committed to peace they have to release these comrades immediately, else we are not going to participate in the next coming process unless with the participation of these leaders,” he said.
The government will release the detainees “according to the laws of South Sudan,” though they will “not necessarily” be present for the next stage of talks, Information Minister Michael Makuei said in an interview.
The accords made no specific reference in the agreements to the withdrawal of Ugandan troops from South Sudan, one of the key rebel demands before today’s agreement. The two sides agreed that “all forces should withdraw from theaters of operation, where there is physical fighting,” Makuei said.
Uganda’s military says it has about 1,600 soldiers in South Sudan. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said the forces were deployed to support South Sudanese government troops.
The rebels expect Ugandan troops to now play a “non-combatant” role in South Sudan, opposition spokesman Mabior Garang said in an interview.
Companies including China National Petroleum Corp. and India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp. have evacuated employees from South Sudan because of the violence. The country, which gained independence in July 2011, has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to BP Plc data.
During a four-day visit to South Sudan last week, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic said he received reports of mass killings, sexual violence and the use of children in conflict. The worst affected areas were around Juba, the capital, Bor, and Bentiu, capital of oil-rich Unity state.
“What I saw was a horror. Destruction and death is everywhere in Bentiu, which has now become a ghost town,” he said in a statement yesterday. “I myself saw some 15 bodies lying on a road. The extent of the looting, burning and destruction is hard to grasp for anybody who hasn’t been there.”