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Africa

South Sudan: deadlocked talks and the military option

Following territorial gains by government troops, South Sudan's rebels now only hold one major city. Caught in a humanitarian crisis, many refugees have lost everything and fear more fighting.

Südsudan Soldaten Übernahme Bentiu

South Sudanese government soldiers after the recapture of Bentiu

Luoy Kuong is under shock and seems to be traumatized. He is standing in front of the ruins of his house in the town of Bentiu. Three walls have survived, but the rest of the building has been burnt down.

Almost every house in the neighborhood has been destroyed or looted and the air is thick with ash and dust. "This is terrible. What am I to do? Everything has been burnt down," said Kuong staring vacantly into the foreground.

The 18-year-old has no idea what has happened to the rest of his family, nor does he know what will now happen to him personally.

Luoy Kuong, homeless Bentiu resident

Luoy Kuong in front of the ruins of his house

Bentiu, capital of oil-rich Unity state, is just a ghost town. Corpses of soldiers and civilians lie along the side of the road. Government troops retook the city from the rebels on Friday (10.01.2014) after a lengthy firefight. Rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar seized Bentiu in December.

Negotiations deadlocked

"The situation is now under control," announced one soldier from the government forces, the SPLA. "Nothing more is going to happen – the civilians can come back," he said with evident pride. Most residents of Bentiu don't believe him. Almost all of them fled to the UN refugee camp for safety.

Army spokesman Philip Aguer

South Sudan army spokesman Philip Aguer says the struggle against the rebels will continue

Negotiators for the two sides have been holding talks in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa since January 3, 2014. Riek Machar is insisting on the release of 11 political detainees before he will agree to a ceasefire. The eleven are alleged to have been involved in a coup against President Salva Kiir, who, in turn, is refusing to set them free. Machar disputes that a coup was ever attempted in the first place. The talks are deadlocked and mediation efforts by third parties have made no headway.

Unclear how conflict started

The two sides are therefore fighting out their differences on the battlefield and the civilian population is suffering as a consequence. More than 200,000 people have been displaced according to the United Nations. "It is a political crisis in which a number of our politicians have recruited members of the armed forces in order to take power by force," said Philip Aguer, spokesman for the SPLA, told DW.

Peter Adwork Nyaba supports the rebels and accuses the government of carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing at the start of the conflict. Nyaba lost his job as a minister when President Kiir sacked his entire cabinet last year.

Peter Adwok Nyaba

Peter Adwok Nyaba was fired from his cabinet post and now supports the rebels

In an interview with DW, Nyaba said one of the failings of the government was in its inability to turn the ruling SPLM (Sudan People's Liberation Movement) into a genuine political movement dedicated to the well-being of the people. "As a consequence it can only reach its objectives by falling back on the army. The president is only able to resolve disputes through military means," he said.

It is still unclear whether the start of the fighting was triggered by a coup or was politically engineered. Both sides, however, have played their part in giving this conflict an added ethnic dimension. Both, too, helped it to spread – along with the attendant misery for the civilian population.

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