South Sudan: Conflicting reports over White Army clashes

The BBC's James Copnall says aid workers fear a humanitarian crisis in S Sudan

There are conflicting reports from South Sudan where youths loyal to rebel leader Riek Machar are said to be marching on the strategic town of Bor.

In an interview with the BBC, a spokesman for President Salva Kiir denied earlier reports that most of the youths had been persuaded to go home.

Instead, Ateny Wek Ateng said the group had clashed with government forces.

At least 1,000 people have died in this month's fighting. More than 121,600 are believed to have fled their homes.

A UN surveillance flight earlier located the group of youths 50km (30 miles) north-east of Bor, but did not reveal its size.

Analysis

The White Army is a name that inspires fear in South Sudan.

This loose grouping of armed youth from the Nuer ethnic group was at least partly responsible for the 1991 Bor massacre, in which at least 2,000 people were killed.

Then, the White Army fought alongside Riek Machar, who had split away from the main southern Sudanese rebel group fighting Khartoum.

In 2011 and 2012 a new incarnation of the White Army went on the rampage, killing hundreds of civilians from the Murle ethnic group.

At the time, Mr Machar was vice-president - and although he travelled to meet them, he was unable to stop their advance.

Tens of thousands of civilians have sought refuge in UN camps, and reinforcements have been arriving to give them extra protection.

What began as a power struggle between Mr Machar and President Salva Kiir has taken on overtones of an ethnic conflict. The Dinka, to which Mr Kiir belongs, are pitted against the Nuer, from which Mr Machar hails.

The government has offered a ceasefire, but the army says its forces are still battling rebels over oilfields in the north.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said he had contacted President Kiir and Mr Machar "to urge them both to commit to an immediate ceasefire".

Mr Hague said he had encouraged them "to enter into negotiations immediately and without preconditions" and offered the UK's diplomatic support.

East African mediators have given both sides until Tuesday to agree a ceasefire.

'Volatile'

South Sudanese government troops are currently in control of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state they took from the rebels.

The group said to be marching on the town are part of an ethnic Nuer militia known as the White Army because of the white ash they put on their skin to protect them from insects.

South Sudanese government spokesmen were quoted as saying the group numbered as many as 25,000 armed men and answers to the former vice-president, but these details have not been confirmed.

Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth told the BBC on Sunday that Nuer community leaders in Jonglei state had persuaded the fighters to go home. He said only a "small group" remained.

However, presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateng later denied this claim and said clashes had taken place.

He said the youths had "ignored" calls by community leaders to abandon their march.

"They seem to be adamant because they think that if they don't come and fight, then the pride of their tribe has been put in great insult," he said.

"The majority are still moving... there's still a number of about 20,000 still moving."

He added that government forces had been deployed to Bor.

South Sudan army soldiers hold their weapons as they ride on a truck in Bor, 180 km (108 miles) northwest from capital Juba December 25, 2013 Government troops are currently in control of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state they took from the rebels

Joe Contreras, a spokesman for the UN Mission in South Sudan, described the group of youths as "a volatile and unpredictable ingredient" to the unrest in South Sudan.

"They are a wildcard whose intervention in the theatre of conflict outside Bor could ratchet up the conflict even further."

Ceasefire

Mr Machar was deputy president until Mr Kiir sacked him in July.

Riek Machar has given a cautious response to government proposals to end hostilities, as Peter Biles reports

Earlier this month fighting broke out between rival armed factions after Mr Kiir accused Mr Machar of trying to unseat him in a coup.

Mr Machar said on Friday his forces were in control of the whole of the states of Jonglei and Unity, apart from Bor.

He said he had a negotiating team ready but any ceasefire had to be credible, properly monitored and preceded by the release of 11 detainees accused of being co-conspirators in the coup plan.

Mr Kiir has refused to accept any preconditions for a ceasefire.

BBC map
News graphic showing the ethnic groups of South Sudan Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Map showing the location of oil fields in South Sudan Both Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north
Map showing the geography of South Sudan The two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
Map showing access to water in South Sudan After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan is the world's newest country - and one of its poorest. Figures from 2010 show some 69% of households now have access to clean water - up from 48% in 2006. However, just 2% of households have water on the premises.
Map showing education levels in South Sudan Just 29% of children attend primary school in South Sudan - however this is also an improvement on the 16% recorded in 2006. About 32% of primary-age boys attend, while just 25% of girls do. Overall, 64% of children who begin primary school reach the last grade.
Map showing food insecurity rates in South Sudan Almost 28% of children under the age of five in South Sudan are moderately or severely underweight - this compares with the 33% recorded in 2006. Unity state has the highest proportion of children suffering malnourishment (46%), while Central Equatoria has the lowest (17%).

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