THE U.S. withdrew funding to help transport South Sudan rebel leader Riek Machar to the capital, Juba, to take part in a transitional government, the rebel force’s head of foreign relations said.
Machar’s supporters are now seeking support from the United Nations to fly Machar from Gambella, in western Ethiopia, to Juba, Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth said Sunday in an interview. The rebels are also appealing to the U.S. to reconsider because Machar’s failure to travel may imperil a peace agreement aimed at ending the country’s two-year civil war, he said.
“Definitely the transition is on hold unless we have another person that can volunteer to help transport the first vice president,” Gatkuoth said. South Sudan President Salva Kiir and Machar signed a peace deal in August under international pressure, agreeing to run a government of national unity and hold elections within 30 months.
Fighting that erupted in December 2013 has killed tens of thousands of people, forced more than 2 million more to flee their homes and cut oil production by at least a third. The U.S. said it was time that both sides showed commitment to implement the peace deal. “The scope of future U.S. engagement in helping South Sudan confront the country’s security, economic and development challenges, however, will depend on the parties demonstrating commitment to work together to implement the agreement,” John Kirby, spokesman of the U.S. Department of State, said.
Machar’s scheduled April 18 return has been repeatedly delayed because of disagreements about the number of troops and the amount of weapons he can travel with to Juba.
On Sunday, hundreds of South Sudanese prayed for peace ahead of the expected arrival in the capital of rebel chief Riek Machar, a move hoped to help end over two years of war.
After a week of delays caused in part by disagreements over the number of troops and weapons he can bring with him, the government on Saturday issued clearance for the man due to become South Sudan’s first vice president to fly to Juba on Monday.
However, there was a “further lack of action” to arrange flights for Monday, the British Embassy in Juba said in a statement on its Facebook page. “It is now time for the parties to take over the primary responsibility of ensuring this return.”
Machar, who will arrive from neighbouring Ethiopia, can bring with him 195 men carrying AK-47 assault rifles, as well as 20 machine guns and 20 rocket-propelled grenades.
But worshippers at Emmanuel Parish, a Protestant church for Juba’s Dinka community, said they hoped his arrival would herald an end to the fighting.
“We hope God will bring peace,” said Joseph Deng, a 34-year old civil servant said after Sunday’s service.
War was “not what people thought we would have to face when we won our independence,” Deng said, as the packed congregation sang hymns, with thumping pop music pouring from giant speakers.
South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Machar of plotting a coup.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than two million been driven from their homes in the conflict, which has reignited ethnic divisions and been characterised by gross human rights violations.
Back where it begun
Machar, who fled Juba when the war broke out, is due to forge a transitional unity government with arch-rival, Kiir, returning to the post of vice-president he was sacked from months before the violence began.
The two leaders come from the South’s two main ethnic groups—Kiir from the Dinka people and Machar from the Nuer—tribes that are themselves split into multiple and sometimes rival clans.
“We are all South Sudanese,” said Mary Padar, after prayers in the church, a British colonial-era cinema reduced to ruins during the two-decade long war that paved the way for South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011, and since converted into a church.
“We have to live together because this is the only country we have,” she added.
Machar return is already months behind the schedule agreed under an August 2015 peace deal.
Clear path on paper
On paper at least, there is now nothing blocking his return on Monday.
South Sudan’s National Security had issued a letter granting him flight clearance on Saturday - saying planes could not land over the weekend “due to maintenance” at the airport.
Rebel spokesman Mabior Garang, who is in Juba already, said Machar’s return was an “inevitability” and that he would land on Monday as planned, “barring any additional unforeseen hurdles… by the antagonists of peace.”
A 1,370-strong armed rebel force has already arrived in Juba as part of the peace deal, and government forces say they have implemented their promise to pull all but 3,420 of their troops from the city.
All other soldiers have to remain at least 25 kilometres (15 miles) outside the capital.
-Bloomberg and AFP