South Sudan President Fires Army Chief as Violence Worsens

South Sudan fired its army chief as deepening violence in the world’s newest nation sparked international outrage and dimmed prospects for a pickup in oil production that’s the country’s main source of revenue.

President Salva Kiir named Paul Malong Awan, a member of his Dinka community, to replace James Hoth Mai, the longtime chief of general staff of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army from the Nuer ethnic group of rebel leader Riek Machar, according to a decree broadcast on state television late yesterday. No reason was given for the move.

The announcement followed rebel attacks this month in the capital of oil-rich Unity state, Bentiu, that the government said claimed as many as 400 lives and U.S. President Barack Obama’s press secretary called “an abomination.” The United Nations said the attackers killed “hundreds” of civilians after determining their ethnicity and nationality.

“The forces of the government have been losing town after town in the last few weeks and that’s embarrassing for the government,” Abraham Awolich, an analyst at the Sudd Institute, a research group based in the capital, Juba, said today in an interview. “Someone must be held accountable for that. That’s what cost the job of the chief of staff.”

Treason Charges

The violence in South Sudan erupted on Dec. 15 in Juba and spread swiftly to other parts of the country after Kiir accused Machar of leading a failed coup. Machar denies the accusation. The conflict has killed thousands of people and driven more than a million from their homes, according to the UN.

The government is withdrawing treason charges against four politicians in a bid to boost the peace process, while maintaining them against Machar and two others, Justice Minister Paulino Wanawilla told reporters today in Juba.

The UN Security Council said in a statement today that members have asked for an immediate investigation into rights violations in Bentiu, and for UN Assistant Secretary-General Ivan Simonovic to make an urgent trip to South Sudan to assess the situation.

“The members of the Security Council indicated their willingness to take additional measures should attacks on civilians and violations of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement continue,” according to the statement.

The two sides have flouted the cease-fire signed in January, Under-Secretary-General for UN Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous told reporters in New York yesterday. The resumption of peace talks scheduled to take place this week in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, was delayed until April 28.

Peace Talks

“Neither side has given any indication that they will seriously participate in the peace talks,” he said, referring to negotiations led by East African mediators. A “humanitarian catastrophe is all but certain,” he said.

Armed civilians also raided a UN peacekeeping base in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, on April 17 and opened fire on civilians sheltering inside, according to the UN.

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting yesterday in New York on the situation in South Sudan and discussed the need for “serious consequences” to mass violence in Bentiu, council president and Nigerian Ambassador to the UN Joy Ogwu said.

The French Ambassador to the UN, Gerard Araud, told reporters yesterday that he thinks the council is “ready to go down the road of sanctions.”

The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said in a posting on Twitter, Inc., yesterday that the “international community must sanction political spoilers and those who target civilians.”

‘Gruesome Massacres’

The killing of more than 50 at a UN base in Bor and the “gruesome massacres” of hundreds of civilians in Bentiu show that ethnic violence against civilians “is spiraling out of control,” Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mailed statement.

Oil companies in South Sudan have evacuated some foreign workers, leading to a partial shutdown. Crude output has declined by about a third to 160,000 barrels per day being pumped in the only state still producing, Upper Nile. China National Petroleum Corp., India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp. and Petroliam Nasional Bhd. are the country’s main producers.

The conflict has cut food production and put the country at “imminent risk” of famine, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional bloc mediating peace talks, said in an e-mailed statement today.

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