South Sudan's major donors have raised concerns over the fighting in East and West Equatoria, saying it could derail the fragile peace agreement and lead to a humanitarian crisis.
The Troika -- The United States, Norway, and the United Kingdom -- who are the main funders of the South Sudan peace process, on February 21 issued a joint statement raising alarm over the escalating conflict around Yei, saying it was in breach of the December 2017 Cessation of Hostilities Agreement and the September 2018 revitalised peace agreement.
"We are particularly disturbed that fighting by all parties in the Yei area has severe humanitarian consequences for the local population. This renewed violence risks undermining the peace agreement and lowers confidence of the Troika and other international partners in the parties' seriousness and commitment to peace at a critical time of the pre-transitional period of the revitalised peace agreement," the Troika said in a statement.
The war in Equatoria is between government forces and those of Gen Thomas Cirilo Swaka, the leader of National Salvation Front (NAS) who refused to sign the September 2018 peace deal.
Gen Swaka, a former SPLA deputy chief of general staff who defected from the government in July 2018, has announced that his group and others that did not sign the deal will not stop the fighting unless there is a new peace deal and a governance system that assures services to South Sudanese.
Gen Swaka and the former governor of West Equatoria, Bangasi Joseph Bakosoro, who leads the South Sudan National Movement for Change (SSNMC), are the leading lights among those who refused to sign the agreement on the grounds that it did not address the root causes of the outbreak of the civil war in 2013 and did not include federalism.
The war in Equatoria has changed the dynamics and brought the war closer to Kenya and Uganda, as opposed to previously when it was mainly concentrated in Upper Nile near Ethiopia, pitting President Salva Kiir's forces against those of Dr Riek Machar.
Different armed groups emerged in the Equatorias after the July 2016 clashes in Juba that led to collapse of the 2015 peace deal.
Their grievances are mainly the indiscriminate killing of the youth by government forces and the encroachment on their lands and farms by the majority pastoralist Dinka.
There are concerns that Gen Swaka's group, based in Central and West Equatoria, could cause more humanitarian crises because the Equatorias are the main bread basket of South Sudan, main routes for the country's exports and are close to the capital city Juba.
"We would by now expecting foodstuff from Yei since the Revitalised Agreement was signed in September, but the presence of NAS forces around Central Equatoria and part of Western Equatoria has affected food supply to the capital city Juba," said James Oryema, Sudanese People's Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO) representative in Kenya. Civilians have been displaced, affecting food flow to the city and other locations northwards.
Roads are nearly inaccessible since heavily armed groups and bandits attack vehicles on the Nimule-Juba and Yei-Juba roads.
A recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee report shows that some 5,000 South Sudanese moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo and 8,000 took refuge in Yei, because of continued conflict between the NAS and government forces.
But James Morgan, the South Sudan Permanent Representative to the African Union told The EastAfrican that while the fighting in the country's bread basket is worrying, Gen Swaka is just seeking recognition and he poses no threat to the peace process.
"We are confident that Gen Swaka cannot become a force unless regional countries allow him to launch attacks from their territories. We in the government believe that his activities are being promoted by the international media at the behest of people who are anti-peace," said Mr Morgan.
Gen Swaka claims to have 30,000 troops under his command in addition to leading an umbrella group of militias of the holdout -- South Sudan National Democratic Alliance.
Dr James Okuk, a professor of political sciences at University of Juba said that the peace process in South Sudan has reached a critical juncture and the AU and the international community must take the issue seriously.
"There will be no peace talks again because people are tired of peace talks. The only thing is to persuade the holdouts to join in the implementation where their concerns can be addressed," said Dr Okuk.
Roger Yoron Modi, a former editor-in-chief of Radio Bakhita, said that there is hope that the efforts by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development Special Envoy for South Sudan, Ismail Wais, to include the non-signatories of the agreement in the implementation will soon bear fruit.
Additional Reporting by Joseph Oduha.