, Nairobi, Kenya, Aug 18 – South Sudan’s former rebel leader and ex-vice president Riek Machar has escaped to the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo following violent clashes last month, an official said Thursday.
“Riek Machar is currently in DRC, in Kinshasa, and wants to go as soon as possible to Ethiopia,” an aide told AFP.
An earlier statement from Machar’s SPLM-IO party said the leader had been “evacuated to a safe country within the region” without naming Congo.
Civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused Machar, then his deputy, of plotting a coup. The fighting has split the world’s newest country along ethnic lines and driven it to the brink of collapse.
A peace deal signed between the government and rebels a year ago has so far failed to end the conflict. And last month Juba was rocked by several days of heavy fighting between Kiir’s forces and those loyal to Machar.
Machar’s whereabouts had been unclear since the fighting flared in Juba between July 8 and 11 and led to his outgunned and outnumbered forces being chased from the city by government troops.
He was subsequently replaced as vice president on July 25 by Taban Deng Gai, a former friend and ally.
Deng warned Wednesday that Machar should stay out of politics to allow peace despite previously indicating that if Machar returned to Juba he would stand aside.
– Cost of war –
Machar’s intention to travel to Ethiopia, a regional power broker that hosted peace talks through the trade bloc IGAD, suggests he has no intention of being cut out of negotiations or pushed from power.
Several former rebel commanders have warned they consider Deng’s elevation to vice president to be “treason”.
South Sudan’s civil war has been characterised by war crimes and human rights abuses with civilians massacred — often along tribal lines — women and girls raped and children forced to become soldiers.
Homes and property have been looted and burned, and entire towns razed.
Tens of thousands of people have died and over two million have been forced from their homes.
In just the most recent documented atrocity a South Sudanese journalist was killed by government soldiers because of his tribe and foreign aid workers were shot, beaten and raped in an attack on a hotel during last month’s fighting in Juba.
The targeting of foreigners spurred the United Nations to launch an investigation into why its peacekeepers failed to respond to calls for help while the attack was going on.
Last Friday the UN Security Council approved a US-drafted resolution to strengthen the 12,000-person peacekeeping mission with 4,000 additional troops drawn from regional armies and equipped with a more aggressive mandate.
Juba has yet to accept the resolution.