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South Sudan Security Update: 19 December 2013

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After Sunday’s reported coup attempt, fighting has continued in South Sudan, with the military now reporting that South Sudanese rebels have taken over a key town.  The unrest, which began in the capital Juba, has already killed some 500 people, sparking concerns that the conflict could spread and transform into a civil war.  President Salva Kiir has accused former vice president Riek Machar of plotting a coup, a claim he has denied.

Rebels Take Key Town

On Thursday, South Sudan’s army spokesman, Col. Philip Aguer, confirmed “our soldiers have lost control of Bor to the forces of Riek Machar.”  The previous day, Bor’s mayor, Nicholas Nhial Maja, indicated that violence had spread to his city from Juba, which is located 200 km (125 miles) away.

Overnight, there were reports of gun battles in Bor, as renegade officers fought with troops who are still loyal to the current president.  The army has indicated that Peter Gadet Yak, the commander of Division 8 unit, had rebelled, taking with him an unknown number of soldiers.  It currently remains unclear as to whether troops loyal to Mr. Machar were involved in the fighting.

Bor is the capital of Jonglei state.  Prior to the current violence, Bor has been seen as being one of the most volatile areas in South Sudan.

While the latest violence has been confined to Jonglei, tensions are also high in the states of Unity and Upper Nile.  However in Juba, where the violence initially erupted on Sunday, the situation appears to be calmer, with Col. Aguer reporting that “the streets are busy and shops are open.

Meanwhile, officials at the United Nations have expressed concern about a possible civil war erupting between the country’s two main ethnic groups, the Dinka of current President Kiir and the Nuer, of Mr. Machar.  The UN has called for political dialogue in order to end the crisis, with the Ugandan government indicating that its president has been asked by the UN to mediate between the two sides.  A delegation composed of East African foreign minister is due to fly to Juba in order to try and arrange talks.  The UN peacekeeping mission has indicated that it is sheltering civilians in five state capitals, including Juba, Bor and Bentiu, which is the main town of the oil-producing state of Unity.

Brtiain and the United States have already sent out planes in order to airlift their nations out of the country.

Coup Attempt

On Monday, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir indicated that an attempted coup by soldiers loyal to his former deputy Riek Machar had been put down.

The President further noted that after a night of heavy fighting between soldiers in the presidential guard, the government was now in full control of the capital, Juba.  A night time curfew was put in place and a number of arrests were reportedly made.  Several people were reported injured and hundreds have fled to a US base.

Fighting broke out in the capital city overnight and intensified in the early morning, with reports of continuous gunfire and several explosions being heard.  The city’s airport has been closed and the state TV channel SSTV went off air for several hours.   Shortly after it came back on air, SSTV broadcasted an address by the President, who indicated that the violence “was an attempted coup,” noting that the government was now in full control and that the attackers were being chased down.    The president has blamed soldiers loyal to Riek Machar, who he dismissed as vice-president in July, for starting the fighting in the capital.  Machar was dismissed after mounting public criticism at the government’s failure to deliver better public services in the oil-producing nation.

The fighting erupted when unidentified uniformed personnel opened fire during a meeting of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).  This was followed by an attack on army headquarters near the university, which was carried out “by a group of soldiers allied to the former vice president Dr. Riek Machar and his group.”  During his address, the president stipulated that he “…will not allow or tolerate such incidents once again in our nation.  I strongly condemn these criminal actions in the strongest terms possible.”  He vowed that those responsible would have to stand “before the appropriate law institution.”

On Monday, the president declared a curfew, running from 6PM to 6AM each night.

Overview  of South Sudan

South Sudan’s is the world’s newest nation.  Located in central Africa, and bordered by six countries, South Sudan is rich in oil, however following decades of civil war, it is also one of the least developed regions on earth.


In 2011, South Sudan overwhelmingly voted to breakaway from Sudan.  Since then, there have been a number of small-armed rebellions, border clashes and deadly cattle feuds.  However these have all typically occurred in places away from the capital Juba.

The government’s main concern has been to get the oil flowing following disagreements with Sudan.  Production of oil only resumed in April of this year.  In turn, signs of tension within the country’s governing SPLM party became evident in July, when President Salva Kiir, from the majority Dinka group, removed his deputy Riek Machar, who comes from the second largest Nuer group, from power.

Civil War?

Over the past week, the president of the United Nations Security Council, Gerard Araud, who has stated that the violence in South Sudan had the potential to be a “fully-fledged war throughout the country” between the Dinka and Nuer communities.  In turn, up to 20,000 people have already taken refuge in the UN mission in Juba, with some indicating that Nuer residents were being targeted in the fighting.  Furthermore, after decades of conflict, the country is also awash with guns.

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