London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir arrived in Juba on Monday for talks with South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir to discuss the internal conflict which has threatened the world’s newest state.
South Sudan Foreign Minister Barnaba Benjamin told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Bashir is due in Juba today [Monday] to hold closed-door talks with Kiir about the situation in South Sudan and the bilateral relations between the two countries.” He added that Khartoum had given humanitarian aid to the victims of the conflict.
South Sudan has now seen three weeks of violence as a result of the conflict between supporters of former Vice President Riek Machar and South Sudan’s army—the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)—which is loyal to President Kiir.
The violence began as a political dispute but has since taken on ethnic dimensions, with supporters of Kiir, comprised of members of the Dinka ethnicity, fighting those loyal to Machar, composed of the Nuer people.
Around 200,000 have been displaced since the conflict began on December 15, with the UN estimating that more than 1,000 people have died as a result.
Kiir has accused Machar of seeking to carry out a military coup.
South Sudan Army spokesman Philip Aqueir told Asharq Al-Awsat that there was a secret alliance between Khartoum and the rebels. He added that “Khartoum newspapers represent the position of the government, because they are owned by the regime, and they are clearly biased towards Machar and his group and support the rebellion, and that is enough evidence.”
Commenting on the allegations, Benjamin said: “We hear from various parties that the Sudanese military intelligence are giving military aid to Machar’s forces, but so far, we have no evidence, and I do not know if Kiir is going to discuss this issue in the closed meeting.”
As talks to resolve the conflict began in Addis Ababa, Yohanis Musa Pouk, spokesman of Machar’s team at the negotiations in the Ethiopian capital, told Asharq Al-Awsat that Sunday’s session revolved around arrangements to reach a ceasefire in return for the release of political detainees in Juba.
Pouk said his negotiation team made a complaint to the mediators about “negative statements” from the South Sudan information minister, about the government’s refusal to release detainees.
He said “these issues should be discussed at the negotiation table, not in the media,” adding that forces loyal to Machar were close to Juba.
He also said that Washington has asked Machar to stop advancing on Juba and work towards making a success of the negotiations with the government, “but we will continue to negotiate, even if Juba fell in the hands of our troops, because we want peace.”
He added that his movement’s vision was to form a transitional government and achieve democracy, and hold elections at the end of the transitional period, the duration of which, he did not specify.
Pouk denied that the conflict had ethnic, tribal basis, adding that “there are tribes which are not related to the two main tribes, Kiir’s Dinka and Machar’s Nuer.”
Aqueir denied reports that Machar’s forces were close to the capital Juba and said “we assure our people and the world as a whole, and with full confidence, that South Sudan is stable and the [army] is near Bor and Bantio, and will enter them within two days.” He refused to call the conflict a tribal war. He said that the SPLA was still united, and that they would not “become an army which belongs to a tribe or a specific party.”
He also accused the rebels of recruiting children and using them in the fighting. He said the events in Juba on Saturday were “isolated clashes and were not close to the presidential palace, and that the government had opened an investigation.”
Bentiu, the capital of oil-rich Unity State, has now been taken over by the rebels, with the South Sudanese government confirming oil is no longer flowing from the state’s fields.
China, the biggest investor in South Sudan’s oil industry, is also present at the Addis Ababa negotiations. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Associated Press he was “ready to directly engage” the warring parties in order to end the fighting.