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South Sudan foes agree ‘permanent’ ceasefire within 72 hours

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and his arch-foe Riek Machar agreed Wednesday to a “permanent” ceasefire to take effect within 72 hours, raising hopes of an end to four-and-a-half years of war.

Salva Kiir and his arch-foe Riek Machar
Salva Kiir and his arch-foe Riek Machar

The conflict erupted in 2013, around two years after South Sudan won independence from Sudan, when Kiir accused his then-deputy Machar of plotting a coup.

It claimed tens of thousands of lives, displaced four million people and left the newly created country’s oil-rich economy in tatters.

“All parties have agreed on a permanent ceasefire within 72 hours,” Sudan’s Foreign Minister Al-Dierdiry Ahmed said after talks between the two leaders in Khartoum.

Kiir and Machar then signed the document — called the “Khartoum Declaration” — in the presence of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

“It is the day that our people of South Sudan have been expecting, and I’m happy that it has finally been achieved,” Kiir said after inking the agreement.

Machar said with the signing of the ceasefire, applicable across the entire country, the war “should come to an end”.

The latest push for peace in South Sudan comes as part of a fresh bid launched by East African leaders and with the two factions facing a looming deadline to avert UN sanctions.

Welcoming the announcement, the United Nations said it was “signed at a time when the security situation in parts of South Sudan continues to deteriorate… with killings of civilians and other atrocities”.

Several previous ceasefire agreements have been violated, but Bashir said the latest signals the return of peace to South Sudan.

The declaration, a copy of which was made available to AFP, says the ceasefire includes disengagement, separation of forces in close proximity, withdrawal of all allied troops, opening of humanitarian corridors, and the release of prisoners of war and political detainees.

It allows members of the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) — an East African regional grouping that has been pushing peace efforts — to “deploy the necessary forces to supervise the agreed permanent ceasefire”.

– Transitional government –

“The security arrangements that shall be adopted shall aim at building national army, police and other security organs of an all-inclusive character that shall be free from tribalism and ethnic affiliations,” the document says.

Wednesday’s declaration says a transitional government to be formed within 120 days will govern the country for 36 months, and that during this period preparations will be made for holding national elections.

The agreement says South Sudan in collaboration with Sudan would rehabilitate oilfield blocks 1, 2, 4 and 5A in Unity State in order to bring the country’s oil production to its previous levels.

During the war, oil production — from which South Sudan gained 98 percent of its revenues on its independence — has plummeted to about 120,000 barrels a day from a peak of 350,000, according to the World Bank.

Analysts expressed doubts the ceasefire would hold.

“If talks do not progress in the coming days, the parties may feel less compelled to adhere to a ceasefire,” said Casie Copeland of International Crisis Group.

“It is not Kiir and Riek shooting, so I want to hear the soldiers declaring the ceasefire,” said South Sudanese analyst Jon Pen De Ngong, who is participating in the talks as an observer.

The Khartoum talks began on Monday and are scheduled to last for two weeks, after which the next round of negotiations are to be held in Nairobi. A last round of dialogue is expected in Addis Ababa.

Kiir returned to Juba later on Wednesday.

– Economy in ruins –

South Sudan’s war dashed the optimism that accompanied independence from Sudan.

The new country quickly descended into civil war, including fighting within the national army, undermined by differences fuelled by the deep enmity between Kiir and Machar.

The conflict spread to several states and was characterised by ethnic massacres, attacks on civilians, widespread rape, the recruitment of child soldiers and other forms of brutality and human rights violations.

A 2015 peace deal saw Machar reinstalled as vice president and return to Juba, but fighting broke out there in July 2016, forcing Machar out of Juba and into exile in South Africa.

The war has left the oil-rich country’s economy in ruins and agriculture heavily disrupted.

Seven million South Sudanese, more than half of the population, will need food aid in 2018, the UN says. –AFP