South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, has recalled the government delegation currently taking part in negotiations in Ethiopia with the country’s armed opposition group under the leadership of former vice-president Riek Machar, accusing the latter of seeking a military solution to the more than 10-month-long conflict.
- The leader of South Sudan’s government’s delegation, Nhial Deng Nhial (L), signs a ceasefire agreement aimed at ending conflict in the country following negotiations in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on 23 January 2014 (Photo: Reuters/Birahnu Sebsibe)
The move comes after the president told governors on Friday that he would recall his negotiating team in protest over the recent military engagement in Unity state capital Bentiu.
The town has repeatedly changed hands between the country’s rival forces since the conflict erupted in mid-December 2013 after a political rift within the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) turned violent.
Peace talks between government and rebel forces, which are being mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have so far failed to yield a lasting political settlement to the crisis.
“The president, with permission from the chief mediator, decided to recall our negotiating team because, first of all, the rebel delegation, instead of participating in the talks in good faith, decided to participate in the organisation of military attacks,” presidential spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny told Sudan Tribune in an exclusive interview on Sunday.
Ateny claimed that Taban Deng Gai, the leader of the rebel negotiating team, travelled to Heglig, the contested border area with Sudan, to organise and a military offensive against government troops in Unity state.
“He (Gai) was in Heglig when [the] attack was launched on Bentiu. He only left Heglig after he was frustrated with [the] defeat of their forces in their bid to take Bentiu, so that it enhances their position at the talks,” he said.
“The second reason is that some of the negotiating team members are cabinet ministers, so the president felt it would not be wise leaving them to stay around without negotiation while there are some works they can do back in the country,” he added.
His comments echo similar claims by the South Sudan’s army (SPLA) spokesperson, Colonel Philip Aguer.
In quotes published by various media agencies on Friday, Aguer alleged that Gai had travelled to the contested border town of Heglig, which remains under the control of the Sudanese army (SAF), to drum up support and boost the morale of rebel fighters in the region to launch an attack purportedly aimed at taking control of Bentiu town.
“Taban Deng Gai was in Panthou (Heglig) when rebels of Riek Machar launched an attack on Bentiu. He only left Panthou (Heglig) on 30 October. This is an indication the rebels of Riek Machar have not abandoned the option of [a] military solution,” Aguer told reporters on Friday.
However, Abdullah Kuot, a spokesperson for armed opposition forces in the Bahr el Ghazal region under the overall command of General Dau Aturjong, denied Gai was involved in military activities, saying the rebel delegation had not left the negotiating table since peace talks resumed last week.
“The decision of the government delegation to return to Juba on the order of Salva Kiir indicates that they are committed to rhetoric of peaceful settlement of the conflict they instigated,” said Kuot.
“Our delegation has never left the venue of peace talks. Indeed their strength has been reinforced by the presence of our chairman, comrade Dr Riek Machar in Ethiopia,” he added.
The leading opposition figure claimed the rebel leadership had asked their leader to come to Ethiopia where IGAD-led talks are being held.
“The leadership felt it would be wise for him to be there personally, so that he would be able to provide guidance to the negotiating team so that they can easily navigates the way out of difficulties, mostly on issues which the government delegation shows intransigence,” Kuot explained in a separate interview on Sunday.
Renewed clashes erupted in Unity state last week between government and rebel forces, with both sides claiming to have the upper hand.
Both the US and United Nations have strongly condemned the latest rebel attacks in the oil-rich region, describing it as a violation of the cessation of hostilities agreement signed by the two rival factions in January.
South Sudan has been locked in an ongoing cycle of violence since mid-December outbreak of violence last year.
The conflict was initially contained in the capital, Juba, before rapidly spreading to other parts of the country, fuelling simmering tribal tensions.