South Sudan on the brink of civil war | Africa | DW | 26.12.2013

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South Sudan on the brink of civil war

South Sudan is at the edge of descending into civil war. The conflict that runs along ethnic lines could threaten the entire region. The UN is hoping to prevent a catastrophe by sending more troops to protect civilians.

A violent power struggle has been raging in South Sudan for more than a week. The United Nations estimates that thousands have already been killed, and has reports of rapes and arbitrary arrests. More than 80,000 people have had to flee the violence. There are some 20,000 people seeking refuge in a UN camp in the capital city of Juba.

The camp, where people are living in makeshift tents, is experiencing serious shortages. The only thing in generous supply is fear for the future. "If the situation remains as it is, I won't be able to return to my home," said one of the refugees.

European Union and East African nations indicated their intentions to send envoys to South Sudan for negotiations as soon as possible. African leaders said they would discuss the crisis in South Sudan on Friday.

Looming civil war

The conflict could escalate into civil war. "It has changed from a political conflict into ethnically motivated killing," DW correspondent Hannah McNeish said from Juba. The UN Security Council has agreed to double the number of soldiers in South Sudan from 7,000 to 12,500.

After a meeting in New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said the soldiers' most important job is to protect civilians. Policing numbers are also set to increase from 900 to 1,300.

Refugees in Juba

Refugees have sought protection from UN troops in Juba

"It's good that the UN is showing greater presence," said Marina Peter of the Human Rights organization Sudan Focal Point. "But in the long run it won't be able to do anything, especially not if the situation continues to escalate," she told DW.

Human rights organization Amnesty International has welcomed the increase in UN troops. But the soldiers will now have to fulfill their mandate to protect civilians, deputy regional director Sarah Jackson said.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier agrees that UN troops are an appropriate measure. "We have to prevent the fighting from turning into an ethnically motivated civil war that would engulf the entire country."

Ethnic divisions

Conflict between supporters of President Salva Kiir and those of his former deputy Riek Machar is behind the fighting. Both had long fought for the independence of South Sudan.

Marina Peter

Peters warns the conflict could destabilize the region

Kirr and Machar come from different ethnic groups. Kiir is a Dinka, the largest ethnic group in the country, which dominates the governing party and former rebel group SPLM. His rival Machar is from the minority Nuer ethnic group.

Former South Sudanese Culture Minster Jok Madut Jok said the relationship between the two politicians had long been marked by silence and mistrust. Kiir had released Machar along with all other cabinet ministers this summer over corruption allegations. Tensions continued to rise after that.

"It seems to be a conflict between two old men who want to remain in power," Peter said. "But in reality the problems run much deeper," she added.

Regional instability

South Sudan has been independent since 2011, when the country split from Sudan. Its 10.8 million people have since hoped for peace - in vain, Peter said.

Ethnic conflicts have marred the fragile situation, and many problems have remained unaddressed. Despite rich oil reserves, most people continue to live in bitter poverty, and can neither read nor write.

Riek Machar and Salva Kiir in Juba

Machar and Kiir have become bitter enemies

South Sudan's conflict threatens the entire region, as several other unstable countries are bordering it.

The Central African Republic, for instance, has been rocked by clashes between Muslims and Christians. In addition to that, South Sudan is an important trade partner for Uganda and Kenya. "If this war continues, the entire region could very quickly go up in flames," Peter warned.

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