Written by Nicole Gaouette, William Davison and Mading Ngor
January 9, 2014(…) — The U.S. said it doesn’t believe the violence that’s wracking South Sudan is the result of a coup attempt and urged the government of the oil-producing nation to release political prisoners.
“We have not seen any evidence of a coup attempt,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. The violence since Dec. 15 is “an armed rebellion” against the government, she said.
Fighting started after President Salva Kiir accused former Vice President Riek Machar of trying to stage a coup, a charge Machar denies. The dispute has escalated into clashes between members of Kiir’s ethnic Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer group in the world’s newest nation, killing thousands of people and forcing more than 270,000 to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.
The U.S., South Sudan’s largest aid donor, also “strongly believes” that Kiir’s government should release 11 politicians detained without charge when the violence erupted, Thomas-Greenfield said. The authorities in Juba have refused calls by the rebels, the U.S., the European Union and East African mediators to free the detainees.
South Sudanese government forces yesterday intensified their attacks on rebel positions in Bentiu, capital of oil-rich Unity state, forcing residents to flee.
“There is fighting around and in Bentiu,” deputy state governor Mabek Lang said in a phone interview. Most civilians have fled the town, where the sound of heavy arms fire could be heard yesterday, Toby Lanzer, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, said on his Twitter account. The UN said that more than 8,000 internally displaced people are being protected at its base in Bentiu.
Rebel envoys in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, where peace talks got under way this week, softened their demand that the government release the politicians yesterday, saying they would continue negotiations to end the conflict.
The detainees, who include Pagan Amum, former secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and Deng Alor, ex-minister of cabinet affairs, have said their imprisonment “should not impede the progress of negotiations,” rebel spokesman Mabior Garang said in an interview.
The detainees have political grievances and “it’s important those grievances be heard,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “This crisis will not be solved on the battlefield.”
The U.S. is providing more than $300 million in humanitarian aid to South Sudan in fiscal years 2013 and 2014. In October, President Barack Obama issued a waiver for South Sudan, exempting it from a law that forbids military aid to countries known to use child soldiers.
The U.S. led negotiations between north and south Sudan that ended a two-decade civil war in 2005 in a settlement that led to independence in July 2011.
“We birthed this nation,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “We do care as a nation about this country. We also have a significant population of Sudanese Americans who have thrived in our country but who have an abiding interest” in South Sudan’s welfare.
“The latest information that I have is that many of the oil wells have been stopped, I don’t know what the percentage is,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “There’s some oil left in the pipeline but much of the pumping has ceased.”
South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according toBP Plc (BP/) data. It has been exporting all of its crude — about 245,000 barrels a day — through pipelines across Sudan. The fighting has cut output to about 200,000 barrels daily, according to the government. Oil exports provide more than 95 percent of state revenue.
Bentiu and Bor, capital of the eastern state of Jonglei, are the only areas in the country that aren’t under control of the government, Foreign Minister Barnaba Benjamin told reporters yesterday after talks with Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir.
Ugandan Air Force planes have struck towns in South Sudan including Bor and Pariak over the past two days, according to the rebels. Uganda deployed troops in the country last month to prevent the conflict from escalating into “genocide,” the state-run New Vision reported yesterday, citing army chief Katumba Wamala.
The rebels’ chief negotiator in Addis Ababa said on Jan. 7 that Uganda forces had staged an “invasion” and that they were bombing the insurgents’ positions.
“We have cautioned our Ugandan friends that they do have to be helpful and they have to be conscious of their actions and that their actions not lead to greater conflict,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
The conflict in South Sudan has cost Uganda’s economy 2 trillion shillings ($793 million) after exports of goods including cement, steel and food were curbed, Investment Minister Gabriel Ajedra said in an interview yesterday.
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