Unrest in South Sudan continues to grow despite concessions by government

BY Robert Pursell  January 30, 2014 at 9:49 AM EDT
South Sudan's Vice President Riek Machar, here addressing the United Nations General Assembly meeting on Sept. 27, 2012, remains in hiding. Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

South Sudan’s Vice President Riek Machar, here addressing the United Nations General Assembly meeting on Sept. 27, 2012, remains in hiding. Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

In the latest development in the ongoing political struggle between the South Sudanese government and fighting rebel forces, South Sudan’s Justice Minister Paulino Wanawila announced Tuesday the release of seven officials the government had originally detained on suspicion of planning a military coup.

However, the justice minister refused to pardon former Vice President Riek Machar, saying that Machar must face treason charges within the country. Wanawila insisted again that Vice President Machar had helped to plan the military coup, charges that Machar, who is currently in hiding, denied any culpability for concerning the fighting that has erupted across the country.

Machar is one of seven officials the government is still planning on trying for treason. Four of the officials are currently in custody while the other three, like Machar, remain in hiding. Rebel forces have warned that the fighting will escalate if any of the seven officials are tried for treason.

The conflict in Sudan dates back to December when factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army began an alleged mutiny — one that President Salva Kiir accused Machar of planning in an attempt to grab power. Machar has denied the charges, insisting that they are simply ploys by Kiir to gain political power by taking out rivals.

While both men have support across Sudan’s ethnic groups, The BBC reports fighting has often been communal, with rebels targeting members of Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group and government soldiers attacking members of Machar’s ethnic group, the Nuers.

Despite the slight reprieve in tension brought upon by Wanawila’s announcement of the seven officials’ release, his confirmation of the government’s intent to continue to prosecute Machar threatens to dissolve any progress between the rebels and government officials, who agreed to a ceasefire Thursday in Ethiopia after peace talks that came about under heavy pressure from the U.N. and the United States. Yet, the peace talks have continued to dissolve amid talk from both sides that the other has already broken the ceasefire, and continued discussions will not resume until Feb. 7.

Aid groups say the fighting has already claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in South Sudan, and that more than 850,000 people have either been displaced from their homes or forced to flee to neighboring countries.