South Sudan’s government and rebels signed a ceasefire deal Thursday that leaders hope will put a pause to five weeks of warfare that has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians.
The peace deal is the first real progress since political friction turned violent Dec. 15, fuelling countrywide battles with ethnic overtones. But questions were immediately raised about whether all fighters in South Sudan would abide by the accord and how long others would follow it.
The military spokesman for South Sudan cautioned that a group of rebels from the former vice-president’s Nuer ethnic group – armed youths known as the “White Army” – may not want peace.
“Riek Machar has been using that force to fight the SPLA, so we have to see what will happen,” said Colonel Philip Aguer, using the acronym for South Sudan’s military.
Nhail Deng Nhail, the head of South Sudan’s negotiating team, said he’s worried that since many rebels are civilians who took up arms, “it may become difficult to follow the ceasefire since they are not militarily disciplined.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney welcomed the deal, calling it a “first critical step in ending the violence” and building a sustainable peace.
Talks are scheduled to resume in early February, but a sore point between the sides remains. Mr. Machar’s side has been pushing to get 11 top former government leaders released from prison. President Salva Kiir has said the 11 will be subjected to South Sudan’s judicial process.
The top negotiator for Mr. Machar’s side, Taban Deng Gai, a general in South Sudan’s army before he defected, said Thursday talks would not continue if the government does not release the 11. South Sudan’s information minister, Michael Makuel Lueth, said the detainee issue has nothing to do with the cessation of hostilities agreement.
An estimated half-million residents have fled their homes because of the fighting, which has often pitted Mr. Kiir’s Dinka-led government and military against Nuer fighters backing Mr. Machar.
The United Nations has warned of atrocities committed by both sides on the battlefield. The fighting has imperilled South Sudan’s oil industry, after technical workers fled and rebel fighters took control of the fields for some time.
The UN on Thursday said it is protecting 76,000 civilians at eight bases in South Sudan. The UN mission has received reports of fighting continuing in multiple locations in the country.