South Sudan On Edge As Forces Face Off

President Salva Kiir's army says a major offensive is underway to retake two strategic towns under the control of fighters loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar. The fighting has entered its second week.

The announcement by South Sudan's Information Minister Michael Makuei that the Sudan's People Liberation Army (SPLA) has launched an offensive has deepened fears that the conflict is tilting the young nation further into a civil war.

DW's correspondent Hannah McNeish in South Sudan's capital Juba said people in the country were already calling the fighting a civil war. "It has turned from a political struggle into widespread ethnic killings." McNeish said, adding that armed civilians had joined various army factions and were now targeting rival ethnicities.

On Tuesday (24.12.2013), United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the Security Council to send more troops to the country. Ban Ki-moon also warned warring factions that reports of crimes against humanity would be investigated, as eyewitnesses spoke of a wave of brutal ethnic killings.

Hundreds of people have been killed since President Salva Kiir accused his rival former deputy Riek Machar of attempting a coup. Last week, gunmen stormed a UN base in Akodo, killing two Indian peacekeepers and at least 20 other civilians. They had fled to the UN compound for shelter.

The ethnic equation

The fighting has now taken on ethnic dimensions. This has sparked concerns that it could be difficult for the leaders to stop the conflict should civil war break out. President Salva Kiir is a Dinka, South Sudan's largest ethnic group, while Machar hails from the Lou Nuer ethnic community. The two tribes have had violent conflicts - mostly centered in Jonglei State - ever since South Sudan gained independence from Sudan.

Toby Lanzer, the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, told DW that the country was becoming increasingly volatile. "It has been difficult for us to reach all corners of the country, and in some cases we have had to relocate staff to get them out of harm's way," Lanzer said.

Rebels loyal to Machar were in control of Bor, capital of Jonglei State, as well as Bentiu, capital of oil-producing Unity State. However, South Sudan's Information Minister Michael Makeui insisted the government continued to control parts of Unity State, including its oil fields. According to Makeui, Machar and his wife escaped by boat to Unity State, the birthplace of the former rebel fighter.

Kiir, facing his biggest challenge since being sworn in as president in 2011, was expected to meet with Rebecca Garang, widow of the late John Garang, founder of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, who is widely seen as a supporter of Machar. Kiir and Machar are both members of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the political wing of the SPLA.

Machar has been described by regional negotiators as a wild card. On Monday (23.12.2013), he said he was willing to talk to Kiir but on condition that all his "comrades" were freed. Initially, Machar had indicated he would only hold talks if Kiir agrees to relinquish power. The talks, which are being facilitated by a group of ministers from neighboring African states have so far failed to stop the violence.

Speedy evacuations

The US and various European and African countries started evacuations last week. Four servicemen from the US were wounded when their aircraft came under fire in a rebel-held area.

Britain, which sent three aircraft to pull out its nationals, gave a warning to those who chose to stay saying they "may have difficulty leaving in the event of a further deterioration in security."

The UN also removed "non-critical" staff from South Sudan. But it said it would boost the number of peacekeepers in Jonglei and Unity states. The UN says the conflict has led more than 45,000 civilians to take refuge at its facilities.

According to Lanzer, the situation is changing rapidly. "We've got possibly hundreds of thousands of people who have sought refuge in churches," he said.

Lanzer called on the international community to assist their operations, saying they have "massive requirements for water, hygiene items, health items, shelter as well as foodstuffs."

The oil factor

The oil sector has been hit severely by the fighting, with oil companies evacuating employees after the death of at least five South Sudanese oil workers last week. But the government insists that oil facilities have not been damaged and oil was still flowing.

Oil production accounts for more than 95 percent of South Sudan's economy. The young nation is rich in oil after seceding from Sudan, but remains deeply impoverished and awash with small arms after the long conflict with Khartoum.

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