The United Nations said on Thursday it was speeding reinforcements to its beleaguered peacekeeping force in South Sudan, where ferocious fighting was raging in the oil-producing north.
“We are working on 48 hours delivery of several of the critical assets that we need,” and the first reinforcements should arrive by Saturday, the world body’s special envoy to the violence-wracked country, Hilde Johnson, said in New York.
The UN is bulking up its peacekeeping muscle in the African nation, which won independence from Sudan only two years ago, amid a vicious fight between troops loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and fighters backing his sacked vice president, Riek Machar.
The UN Security Council agreed Tuesday to nearly double the size of its mission known as UNMISS, allowing for up to 12,500 soldiers and 1,300 police, after the violence sparked on December 15 and raged out of control.
Thousands of people have died, according to the United Nations, and tens of thousands of civilians are seeking protection at UN bases in the country.
While the conflict appeared to start as a power struggle — with Kiir alleging a foiled coup attempt and Machar saying it was really a purge of potential challengers to the president — it rapidly took on an ethnic dimension.
The violence now cleaves along a divide pitting members of Kiir’s Dinka tribe against Machar’s Nuer clansmen.
A South Sudan army spokesman, Philip Aguer, told AFP troops were fighting forces allied to Machar inside the town of Malakal, capital of Upper Nile state.
“There is fighting in Malakal. Our forces are in the northern part of Malakal and the rebels are on the southern part. We will flush them out of Malakal,” he said.
He also said troops were preparing an offensive against Bentiu, the main town in oil-rich Unity State,
The army on Wednesday recaptured Bor, another state capital that had fallen into rebel hands.
International diplomatic efforts are running parallel to the UN effort to try to rein in the violence.
The United States, which was instrumental in South Sudan winning independence, has reiterated it will cut off aid if Kiir is ousted in a coup.
Washington so far is not taking a more active role, though this week it deployed its military to evacuate non-essential embassy staff and other Americans. Four US servicemen were wounded in one of the missions to Bor.
There are nearly 100 US troops on the ground in South Sudan, and a “platoon-sized” Marine contingent in neighbouring Uganda ready to fly in to protect the US embassy in Juba.
Neighbouring states Kenya and Ethiopia have been trying to broker a solution.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn flew into Juba on Thursday for talks with Kiir.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “good progress” was made, with further talks scheduled to take place in Nairobi on Friday — yet the fighting continues and has now spread to half of South Sudan’s 10 states.
Amid reports of bodies piled in mass graves and witness testimonies of massacres and summary executions and rapes, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has promised those responsible would be “held accountable”.
The battles have been intense. An Agence France-Presse correspondent who visited the recaptured town of Bor on Wednesday said bodies littered the streets and stores were looted.
The UN said aid agencies need $166 million (121 million euros) over the next three months to distribute food, manage camps for the 90,000 displaced and provide health and sanitation.
Johnson said the UN peacekeeping office was “working around the clock” to get assets for its South Sudan mission from other deployments in Africa, notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan’s Darfur region and Liberia.
Both manpower and equipment would be sent, Johnson said, without offering further details. Helicopters and a military transport plane are eventually expected to be deployed to South Sudan.
UN rights chief Navi Pillay said a mass grave had been found in rebel-held Bentiu and cited reports of at least two more in Juba, the capital. Around 15 bodies were found in one site in Bentiu, and another 20 bodies at a nearby river, she said.
The UN mission in Juba was more cautious, confirming 15 killed but saying it was still “investigating reports of such atrocities”.
China meanwhile said it would soon dispatch its special envoy for African affairs to South Sudan to make contact with all sides and help the situation quickly return to stability. AFP