South Sudan opposition leader flees to DRC

South Sudan | Continued conflict between the country’s factions heaps misery on war-weary residents
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 8/19/16, 11:03 am

South Sudan’s opposition leader and former vice president, Riek Machar, has fled to the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, a spokesman said yesterday. The UN confirmed it assisted in his departure. Machar’s exit comes weeks after renewed fighting led to increased human rights abuses in the war-torn country.

Machar crossed the border into Congo after a failed attempt to assassinate him, according to spokesman Mabior Garang. After stopping briefly in Kinshasa, Machar plans to travel on to Ethiopia, Garang said.

UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the agency learned of Machar’s presence in Congo and arranged for the UN peacekeeping force to airlift him, his wife, and 10 others on humanitarian grounds.

“We have been providing him with whatever medical assistance he needs,” Haq said. ”We are not in a position to confirm his location.”

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir had no comment on the UN’s assistance to Machar, spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said. But Machar’s departure means the warring factions are still far from making amends, said Ebrahim Deen, a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Center in South Africa.

“I think the South Sudanese government wants him in Congo,” Deen said. “It will embolden them to continue with the way they’ve been carrying on, which is very unfortunate.”

Machar returned to the South Sudanese capital Juba in April and resumed his role as vice president in a bid to advance an August 2015 peace deal. But renewed fighting between the warring leaders’ troops last month led Machar and his forces to withdraw from Juba. In his absence, Kiir appointed a new vice president, Taban Deng Gai, a former opposition negotiator accused of defecting to Kiir’s faction.

While the country’s leaders battle for power, its people suffer. Several witnesses accused Kiir’s forces of assaulting and raping aid workers and foreigners in a Juba hotel complex last month as they celebrated a defeat against Machar’s forces. UNICEF said today that at least 650 children have joined armed groups in South Sudan this year. In a separate document, the United Nations said South Sudan’s government has recruited child soldiers in the past week to prepare for renewed fighting. The internal document revealed a senior politician appointed by Kiir used intimidation tactics to recruit an entire village of boys, some as young as 12.

“They believe they can easily control and manipulate young minds,” said Justin Forsyth, UNICEF’s deputy executive director.

The UN last week authorized sending a 4,000-member regional protection force to Juba after the recent clashes. But South Sudan refuses to accept the force and said the UN will violate the country’s sovereignty if it deploys the troops without government approval.

The Associated Press contributed to this repport.

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD's Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria. Follow her on Twitter @onize_ohiks.

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