Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called a crisis meeting of his top advisers on the deteriorating situation in South Sudan today and proposed reinforcing the United Nations peacekeeping force there in a bid to stem a conflict increasingly marked by ethnically targeted killings.
"I am determined to ensure that UNMISS [UN Mission in South Sudan] has the means to carry out its central task of protecting civilians," he told a news conference at UN Headquarters in New York just hours after arriving back from a visit to the typhoon-ravaged Philippines.
"I will be spending most of today calling regional leaders and others to bolster military support for UNMISS, as well as political backing for efforts to defuse the crisis," he said of the force, which currently has over 6,800 troops and police in the country, where tensions burst into open conflict on 15 December when President Salva Kiir's Government said soldiers loyal to former deputy president Riek Machar, dismissed in July, launched an attempted coup.
Mr. Kiir belongs to the Dinka ethnic group and Mr. Machar to the Lour Nuer, and Mr. Ban said he was "especially worried" by reports of ethnically targeted killings in the conflict, in which tens of thousands of people have been displaced, including some 45,000 now seeking protection at UNMISS bases.
On Thursday, an estimated 2,000 heavily armed assailants overran an UNMISS base in Akobo, in restive Jonglei state, in a brazen attack that left some 20 Dinka civilians dead along with two UN peacekeepers. Another peacekeeper was wounded. The assailants, believed to be Lour Nuer, fled with arms, ammunition and other supplies.
Yesterday UNMISS said that, as a precautionary measure to reduce pressure on its limited resources, it will relocate non-critical staff from Juba, South Sudan's capital, to Entebbe in Uganda. It has also relocated all remaining civilian staff from its compound in the Jonglei state capital of Bor to Juba. At the same time, the Mission is planning to reinforce its military presence in Bor and Pariang to continue fulfilling its mandate to help protect South Sudanese civilians.
After the crisis meeting, attended by senior advisers, with Mr. Ban's Special Representative for South Sudan Hilde Johnson and Special Representative to the African Union Haile Menkerios joining in by video conference, the Secretary-General said he was sending a letter to the Security Council with his recommendations for boosting the protection capacity of UNMISS with additional troops, police and logistical assets.
"We are already approaching countries to help meet the new requirements. We are also looking at other peacekeeping missions, while taking care not to reduce their capacity to respond to threats where they operate," he added.
"UNMISS is protecting civilians at its bases, supporting humanitarian deliveries, monitoring the human rights situation and investigating reports of abuses," he noted, praising "our brave peacekeepers," as well as the mission's staff and leaders.
"Let me be absolutely clear. The world is watching all sides in South Sudan. Attacks on civilians and the UN peacekeepers deployed to protect them must cease immediately. The United Nations will investigate reports of grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Those responsible at the senior level will be held personally accountable and face the consequences - even if they claim they had no knowledge of the attacks."
He stressed that he has repeatedly called on President Kiir and opposition leaders to come to the table and find a political way out of this crisis. "Whatever their differences may be, they cannot justify the violence that has engulfed their young nation," he said of the country which only became independent in 2011 after seceding from Sudan.
"They must do everything in their power to immediately ensure that their followers hear the message - loud and clear - that continued violence, ethnic and otherwise, is completely unacceptable. Now is the time for South Sudan's leaders to show their people and the world that they are, above all, committed to preserving the unity of the nation that was born out of their long struggle for independence."
Mr. Ban also appealed directly to the people of South Sudan, pledging full UN support.
"The United Nations stood with you on your road to independence," he declared. "We will stay with you now. I know that the current situation is causing great and growing fear. You are seeing people leave the country amid increasing chaos. The United Nations will stay with you. We will do our utmost to protect you, to provide the humanitarian assistance you need, and most of all to help the country re-gain the path to peace."