, JUBA, Dec 23 – South Sudan’s army was poised for a major offensive against rebel forces, the president said Monday, as the country slid towards civil war despite international peace efforts.
Expectations of a major upsurge in fighting came as the United Nations warned that the situation in the world’s youngest nation was fast unravelling, with hundreds of thousands of civilians now at risk.
Fighting has gripped South Sudan for more than a week, after President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar, who was fired from the government in July, of attempting a coup.
Machar denied the claim and accused Kiir of carrying out a vicious purge of his rivals. Vowing to oust Kiir, his forces have since seized the town of Bor, capital of the powder-keg eastern Jonglei state and located just 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Juba, as well as the town of Bentiu, capital of crucial oil-producing Unity state.
The army is “now ready to move to Bor,” Kiir told parliament, adding that the counter-attack was delayed until US citizens had been airlifted out.
The comments came despite days of shuttle diplomacy by African nations and calls from the United States, Britain and the United Nations for the fighting to stop in the country, which won independence from Sudan just two and a half years ago, in July 2011.
US special envoy Donald Booth arrived Monday in Juba in a bid to push peace efforts, as the top UN humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, said the situation was rapidly deteriorating.
“It would have been difficult one week ago to imagine that things would have unravelled to this extent,” Lanzer told AFP. “There are hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who’ve fled into the bush or back to their villages to get out of harm’s way.”
Asked which areas of the conflict-torn country he was most concerned about, Lanzer said that “it would be quicker to talk about which areas I’m not worried about” — an indication that an all-out civil war was now a real prospect.
“I hope to be wrong. Otherwise, hundreds of thousands will need help very soon,” he said, admitting that UN peacekeepers were ill-equipped and lacking the numbers to protect civilians seeking shelter with them.
The clashes have left hundreds dead — probably many more. The European Union’s aid chief, Kristalina Georgieva, said the country was “at the brink of a humanitarian tragedy”.
The young nation is oil-rich but deeply impoverished and awash with guns after the long war with Khartoum, and has grappled with corruption and lawlessness since independence. There are both ethnic and political dimensions to the fighting, as troops loyal to Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, battle forces backing Machar, a Nuer.
Fighting has also spread to Upper Nile state, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF – Doctors Without Borders) said. An MSF hospital in Nasir treated 24 people for gunshot wounds on Sunday.
Jok Madut Jok, of the Juba-based Sudd Institute think tank, said reported heavy fighting as well in Upper Nile’s state capital Malakal, although the government remained in control.
One student, an ethnic Dinka, called “in panic to report that he and the rest of Dinka students at the university… will surely be killed if Riek’s (Machar’s) forces take control of Malakal,” Jok said.
Nuer gunmen stormed a UN base last week killing two Indian peacekeepers and slaughtering at least 20 Dinka civilians, and there have been reports of ethnically motivated killings and attacks in the capital Juba and elsewhere.
Kiir repeated his offer to hold talks with Machar, adding that regional nations had offered to host talks.
Foreign governments, including Britain, Kenya, Uganda and the United States, have been evacuating their nationals. On Saturday four US servicemen were wounded when their aircraft came under fire in a rebel-held area.
Britain was flying its third and final military aircraft on Monday to evacuate citizens, warning that those who chose to stay “may have difficulty leaving”.
UN peacekeepers have said they are also reinforcing their military presence in oil-rich Unity state to help protect civilians. As in Bor, a top army commander in Bentiu switched sides to join the rebellion.
Oil production accounts for more than 95 percent of South Sudan’s fledgling economy, and the sector has been hit with oil companies evacuating employees after the death of at least five South Sudanese oil workers last week.