JUBA, South Sudan – South Sudan’s government accused rebel forces of breaking a ceasefire Saturday, January 25, less than 24 hours after it began and dashing hopes of a swift end to the brutal conflict.
The ceasefire, aimed at stopping 5 weeks of bitter fighting in which thousands have died, formally began at 1730 GMT on Friday, January 24, with both sides reporting clashes as the deadline approached.
On Saturday morning, in the first hours of the ceasefire, army spokesman Philip Aguer said the clashes appeared to have ended.
But just hours later, the government reported fresh rebel attacks.
“This morning I am informed that the rebel forces are still continuing attacking our forces,” Minister of Information Michael Makuei said, speaking to reporters as he arrived back from the talks in Ethiopia that hammered out the crucial deal.
“Our forces… will have to defend themselves,” he added.
Despite fears the bitter rivals may seek to fight on, both sides insist they are committed to the deal. But they have also said they doubt the other can fully control the forces on the ground.
“This is not strange, these are rebels and… rebels are indisciplined people, they have no regular forces, no central command,” Makuei said, but adding he believed the deal could still work.
“It was not a wasted time,” he added, speaking of the weeks of negotiation efforts in a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa. “We will try our level best to ensure that the cessation of hostilities is properly monitored.”
He did not give any details of the scale of fighting, or where the reported clashes had taken place.
Before the ceasefire began, rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said the army had attacked positions in the northern oil state of Unity, and in the volatile eastern Jonglei region.
Koang alleged that South Sudanese government troops – as well as Ugandan soldiers and rebels from neighboring Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – had attacked rebel positions on Friday, January 24.
It was not possible Saturday to immediately contact rebel forces, and gathering reports from across the vast and remote regions of South Sudan – large areas of which have poor if any telephone network – is a difficult task.
Brutal atrocities committed
The ceasefire agreement was signed late Thursday, January 23, in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa by representatives of South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and rebel delegates loyal to ousted vice president Riek Machar.
US President Barack Obama, whose country provided crucial backing on South Sudan’s path to statehood, described the deal as “a critical first step toward building a lasting peace.”
Kiir urged those rebels not under Machar’s control to also respect the deal.
“Now that people have fought, people should come back to their senses and we sit down so that we can resolve this conflict through negotiation,” Kiir said in an address Friday.
Up to 10,000 people are believed to have been killed in the fighting pitting forces loyal to Kiir against a loose coalition of army defectors and ethnic militia nominally headed by Machar, a seasoned guerrilla fighter.
The fighting has been marked by atrocities on both sides with some 700,000 people forced from their homes in the impoverished nation, according to the United Nations.
There has also been a wave of brutal revenge attacks, as fighters and ethnic militia use the violence to loot and settle old scores.
Food to feed a quarter of a million people for a month has been looted from UN World Food Programme stores – a staggering 3,700 metric tons – with the agency warning that “humanitarian needs will continue long after the fighting stops.”
More than 76,000 people are crowded inside UN peacekeeper bases across the country – the highest number since the start of the conflict – with most hesitant to leave the protection offered by the compound.
“We’re not leaving yet, because I don’t trust either side to keep the agreement,” said Peter Biel, one of thousands squeezed into a former sports ground turned into crowded camp inside a UN base in Juba.
“Can they just stop fighting straight away, like that? I doubt it. I’m not risking my family’s life believing that.” – Rappler.com