South Sudan frees leaders accused of plotting coup

Oyai Deng Ajak (left) and Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth leave court in Juba - 25 April 2014 Image copyright AFP
Image caption There were loud celebrations outside court as the men were lifted onto the shoulders of supporters

Four senior politicians accused over an alleged coup plot that sparked South Sudan's civil war have been freed after the government dropped the treason charges against them.

The four, who include a former leader of the governing SPLM party, denied the plot as well as links to the fighting.

Their release had been a key demand of the rebels.

Some one million people have been forced from their homes since fighting broke out in December 2013.

The four men were greeted by cheering supporters, who lifted them onto their shoulders and into the crowd.

They were due to fly to neighbouring Kenya but one of their allies, Rebecca Garang, told the BBC that their passports had been confiscated.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The four politicians were accused of treason as well as inciting the army and fuelling the insurgency

President Salva Kiir told journalists that they had been "encouraged" to stay in the country and work for peace.

He also said the prosecution could be revived "any time they are needed".

The trial had been seen as a stumbling block to peace talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Justice Minister Paulino Wanawilla said on Thursday that the case was being dropped in the interest of peace and reconciliation.

The charges against the four politicians carried the maximum sentence of death and related to an alleged coup attempt on 15 December.

Pagan Amum, ex-secretary general of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), told reporters that the withdrawal of the case meant that justice had been denied, and he would have preferred a not guilty verdict.

"We were imprisoned without any reason," Mr Amum told supporters in a speech outside the court.

"We have to return South Sudan to peace and stability," he said, adding that he would work with both the government and rebels "to end this senseless war that is killing our people."

The other three politicians released were ex-National Security Minister Oyai Deng Ajak, former Defence Minister Majak D'Agoot and former ambassador to the US Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth.

As well as treason, they were accused of inciting the army and fuelling an insurgency in South Sudan, the world's newest state which became independent in 2011.

Shocking violence

On Thursday, the UN Security Council threatened sanctions against those responsible for the continuing violence.

In a strongly worded statement, council members expressed "horror and anger" over the mass killings of hundreds of civilians in the town of Bentiu, capital of the oil-rich Unity State, last week.

Correspondents say the killings in Bentiu are among the most shocking since the violence began.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The UN expressed its "horror and anger" at a mass killing in Bentiu last week
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Both the government forces and the rebels have been accused of committing war crimes

Conflict first broke out in the capital, Juba, between troops loyal to South Sudan President Salva Kiir and those allied with his sacked deputy, Riek Machar.

It later spread to other parts of South Sudan, with numerous reports of ethnic killings.

President Kiir accused Mr Machar of instigating a coup - but Mr Machar denied the allegation and branded Mr Kiir a "genocidal leader" who started the war by carrying out a purge of his enemies.

Charges remain against Mr Machar, who fled the capital and is leading the rebellion.

Both sides have been implicated in atrocities and war crimes, and fighting has intensified with the rebels saying they are closing in on northern oil fields and several key towns.

Thousands of civilians have been killed so far in the conflict and the United Nations has warned of the added risk of a famine.

Image caption Fighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in mid-December. It followed a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar. The squabble has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians' political bases are often ethnic.
Image caption 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.
Image caption 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.
Image caption 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.
Image caption 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.
Image caption 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.
Image caption 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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