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East African states mull stabilisation force for South Sudan

* Thousands killed since fighting began in mid-December
* No details on mandate of would-be force
* Government, rebels accuse the other of flouting ceasefire

By Aaron Maasho

ADDIS ABABA, March 4 (Reuters) – East African states are considering sending troops into South Sudan to help enforce a ceasefire deal between government forces and rebels, a regional bloc said, amid persistent accusations by both sides that the other is breaking the truce.

The IGAD grouping, which is mediating peace talks between the two sides, said in a statement it was discussing a “protection and stabilisation force” with the African Union and United Nations.

The statement gave no details on the size or mandate of any force but said it would be part of a mechanism to monitor a cessation of hostilities the warring factions agreed on Jan. 23.

South Sudan’s neighbours are wary of getting sucked into the violence but are frustrated by the continued fighting, and worry the unrest may escalate into a broader regional conflict.

Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi have shown a willingness to contribute soldiers to the force, South Sudanese officials in Ethiopia told Reuters.

All except Rwanda already provide forces to the 22,000-strong African peacekeeping force in Somalia battling al Qaeda-linked militants. Rwanda has sent peacekeepers to the Sudanese region of Darfur and Central African Republic.

IGAD’s statement came as the grouping said it was adjourning peace talks which had been making little headway towards ending more than two months of fighting in the oil-producing country. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the violence.

“This recess will allow the parties to further reflect,” IGAD said in the statement released on Tuesday.

The break in the negotiations could further raise concerns over the security of the country’s oil fields in South Sudan’s northeastern Upper Nile state as fighting edges closer.

The talks, meant to thrash out a deal on political reform after a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy Riek Machar sparked the unrest, are now due to resume on March 20.

East African governments and the international community have grown increasingly frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations. Rebel and government negotiators have not met face-to-face since signing the ceasefire deal – a truce that failed to stick.

The talks have stalled over a rebel demand for the release of four political detainees and the withdrawal of Ugandan troops supporting the national SPLA army, as well as disagreement over what exactly should be up for negotiation.

Western diplomats, privately, are sceptical about each side’s commitment to talks. Both may have committed serious abuses that amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch said last week.

Fighting has spread further north in Upper Nile state after the rebel’s seized the provincial capital, Malakal, last month, the U.N. children agency UNICEF said, although the Juba government says it is in control of the state’s oil fields. (Additional reporting by Carl Odera in Juba; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Jon Boyle)

For more about this report, please refer to Reuters

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