AFP – South Sudan’s government accused rebel forces of breaking a ceasefire Saturday, less than 24 hours after it began and dashing hopes of a swift end to the brutal conflict.
The ceasefire, aimed at stopping five weeks of bitter fighting in which thousands have died, began Friday evening with both sides reporting clashes as the deadline approached.
But Ateny Wek Ateny, spokesman of President Salva Kiir, insisted they would honour the agreement.
“We are definitely going to maintain a ceasefire,” Wek said, adding that government forces had responded only in self-defence to rebel attacks. “All we hope is that both sides respect the peace deal.”
Up to 10,000 people are believed to have been killed in the fighting pitting forces loyal to Kiir against a loose coalition of army defectors and ethnic militia nominally headed by former vice president Riek Machar, a seasoned guerrilla fighter.
The fighting has been marked by atrocities on both sides with some 700,000 people forced from their homes in the impoverished nation, according to the United Nations.
On Saturday morning, in the first hours of the ceasefire, army spokesman Philip Aguer said the clashes appeared to have ended.
But just hours later, the government reported fresh rebel attacks.
“Rebel forces are still continuing attacking our forces,” Minister of Information Michael Makuei said, speaking to reporters as he arrived back from the talks in Ethiopia that hammered out the crucial deal. “Our forces… will have to defend themselves,” he added.
Despite concerns the bitter rivals may seek to fight on, both sides insist they are committed to the deal. But they have also said they doubt the other can fully control the forces on the ground.
“This is not strange, these are rebels and… rebels are undisciplined people, they have no regular forces, no central command,” Makuei said, although he added that the weeks of negotiation efforts in a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa were not “wasted time”.
He did not give any details of the scale of the latest fighting, or where the reported clashes had taken place.
Before the ceasefire came into force, rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said the army had attacked positions in the northern oil state of Unity, and in the volatile eastern Jonglei region.
Koang alleged that South Sudanese government troops – as well as Ugandan soldiers and rebels from neighbouring Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – had attacked rebel positions on Friday.
It was not possible Saturday to immediately contact rebel forces, and gathering reports from across the vast and remote regions of South Sudan – large areas of which have poor if any telephone networks – is a difficult task.
The ceasefire agreement was signed late Thursday in the Ethiopian capital by representatives of Kiir and rebel delegates loyal to ousted vice president Machar.
US President Barack Obama, whose country provided crucial backing on South Sudan’s path to statehood, described the deal as “a critical first step toward building a lasting peace”.
Kiir urged those rebels not under Machar’s control to also respect the deal.
“Now that people have fought, people should come back to their senses and we sit down so that we can resolve this conflict through negotiation,” Kiir said in an address Friday.
But many in the country fear that even with a ceasefire deal, the conflict pitting members of Kiir’s Dinka people – the country’s largest group – against Machar’s Nuer tribe is far from over.
There has also been a wave of brutal revenge attacks, as fighters and ethnic militia use the violence to loot and settle old scores.
Food to feed a quarter of a million people for a month has been looted from UN World Food Programme stores, with the agency warning that “humanitarian needs will continue long after the fighting stops”.
More than 76,000 people are crowded inside UN peacekeeper bases across the country – the highest number since the start of the conflict – with most hesitant to leave.
“We’re not leaving yet, because I don’t trust either side to keep the agreement,” said Peter Biel, one of thousands squeezed into a former sports ground turned into crowded camp inside a UN base in Juba.
“Can they just stop fighting straight away, like that? I doubt it. I’m not risking my family’s life believing that.”