South Sudan stands poised between two stark alternatives on Christmas Eve: an escalation of fighting as government forces prepare to launch an assault on the rebels who have seized two towns, or peace talks, which the international community is urging.
South Sudan‘s government has announced a plan to launch an offensive to take two strategic towns from rebel control. Rebel commander Riek Machar has, however, indicated he would be open to peace talks.
Western powers and East African states had been attempting to mediate between President Salva Kiir and the former vice president-turned rebel leader, Machar. Their efforts appeared to be in vain, with fighting expected to escalate drastically with a planned army assault on the Jonglei state capital, Bor, and the Unity State oil town of Bentiu predicted to take place some time in the next few hours.
The army is “now ready to move to Bor,” Kiir told parliament on Monday, adding the move had been delayed while the United States airlifted its citizens out of the country.
“We are making a major offensive,” Information Minister Michael Makuei told Reuters. “We will take over Bor.”
Kiir has repeatedly offered to meet Machar for talks, but said he “has to come to the table without any precondition.”
He now has his response, though Machar – in hiding “in the bush” – said he would only come to the negotiating table if certain demands were met.
“My message was let Salva Kiir release my comrades who are under detention and let them be evacuated to Addis Ababa [the capital of Ethiopia, where Machar prefers to meet] and we can start dialogue straightaway, because these are the people who would [handle] dialogue,” he told Reuters by telephone.
“A ceasefire is always part of the negotiation, it cannot be done through telephone, nor can it be done through shuttle diplomacy.”
Machar added that the rebels’ control of Bentiu would not seek to stop the production of oil.
The fighting stems from an alleged coup attempt by Machar on Dec. 15. Fired from the vice president’s post in July, Machar has denied he was responsible, but has insisted that Kiir resign. The duo are long-time adversaries, belonging to rival tribes and having previously fought on opposing sides.
The violence since the alleged coup attempt has claimed the lives of hundreds of people, with as many as 100,000 others displaced. Over 40,000 have sought refuge in United Nations compounds. While the capital Juba – the scene of the initial fighting – has returned to a semblance of calm thanks to the presence of peacekeepers, the fighting has spread.
“This Christmas will not be like the previous ones because we will be mourning our dear lost ones in this senseless war,” Kiir said.